20 Years Later: 25th Hour is a Masterful Look at Loss, Longing, and Redemption in Post 9/11 New York
In Spike Lee’s piercing 25th Hour, Edward Norton stares down the clock as he prepares to say goodbye to everything he holds dear.
Revisiting Spike Lee’s 25th Hour
Even two decades later, 9/11 still hovers like an apparition over our society. The fall of the World Trade Center left an indelible mark on the entire world, not just America. It’s an event so singular that anytime a person says “September 11th” or “9/11,” the shorthand immediately becomes clear to anyone of a certain age. Strangely, this is one of the most important parts of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour.
Shot in New York City before and after the fall of the twin towers, the film was forced to either ignore or reckon with the tragedy. Lee, being the bold filmmaker he is, decided on the latter, opening the film with a jaw-dropping tribute of remembrance to one of the most important historical moments of the 21st century. Furthermore, he made it a part of the story in 25th Hour, marking it as a specter that looms in the background, even as normal New Yorkers try to live their lives in its wake.
Though New York is an essential part of the story here, 9/11 absolutely is not. The book that 25th Hour is based on was written by screenwriter and Game of Thrones showrunner David Benioff and was published before the most pivotal terrorist attack since Pearl Harbor. Still, Lee, a New York native himself, decided that it was better to explore how the tragedy changed New York and its citizens rather than ignore it.
As such, 25th Hour was the first motion picture to be shot during the time period of the attacks that acknowledged them. While other massive movies like Spider-Man, Zoolander, and Men in Black II opted to remove any references to the towers whatsoever, Spike Lee walked into the inferno, making a movie where horrible things could happen not just to New Yorkers, but around them, a harsh reality as a result.
Of course, this is the ultimate unnecessary lead-in at this point. 25th Hour is not a film about 9/11 really, but it’s still one of the most important and honest reckonings with those attacks this side of United 93. The story at hand concerns drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), who is chasing daylight as he embraces his last day as a free man before being carted off for a 7-year jail sentence. Someone sold Monty out, and like 9/11, this hangs over him as he prepares to say goodbye to the joys of his everyday life.
He’s not alone, though. On his last day, Monty will seek to say a meaningful goodbye to his father, James (Brian Cox), spend some time with his dog, Doyle, have one more great night with his closest friends Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper), and decide once and for all if he can trust his longtime girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), who may or may not have sold him up the river.
There are conflicts, spoken and unspoken, in every relationship in 25th Hour. Not just between Monty and those closest to him either, but also between his friends and family, who have their own bones to pick with one another and their own ways of dealing with the emotional fallout that his upcoming incarceration will leave to fester in their lives.
Ultimately, this makes 25th Hour a story that could easily be a play, were it not for the constant ghost of 9/11 stirring in the background. Mostly the screenplay leads to one long and meaningful conversation after another, each inspired by the situation at hand and the relationships between the characters. Still, Lee’s knack for visionary direction and creative flourish sometimes make even the most solitary of monologues into a feast for the senses.
Take an early scene that sees Monty pouring all of his hate, derision, and bitterness out into a mirror in a public bathroom. As Monty lets everyone in New York City know how much he despises them in a long-winded tirade, we see the objects of his contempt in living color. Though they may have failings of their own, the scene ends with Monty ultimately understanding that he’s not fit to judge anyone, god or man, black or white, as he had a great life and ruined it out of greed.
Other characters are forced to chase their own demons in the maelstrom that Monty is leaving as well. Frank, who seems to have a crush on Monty’s girlfriend, tears into her in a way that is unforgivable and is also charged with doing the most horrific favor imaginable for his close friend. Meanwhile, Jacob tries to be a good person but ultimately gives in to his worst impulses at a moment of weakness in a way that might ruin his life.
In the end, these many disparate elements of 25th Hour elevate the film to a whole that supersedes its many parts. While the tale of Monty’s reckoning is meaningful and tragic, it’s the haunting monologue from his father that viewers are left with as the credits roll. As James Brogan imagines a different life for his doomed son and even offers to help him escape to it, Monty falls asleep and imagines his father’s words coming to life.
He imagines a life in a small town where he finally gets things right. He imagines reuniting with Naturelle and starting a family. Most importantly and tragically, he imagines telling his children and grandchildren how close they came to never existing. Of course, they don’t. Monty has fallen asleep, and his father passes the bridge out of town as the film comes to a close, adding another string of tragedies and reckonings to a film that is absolutely filled with them.