After spotting it on several "Best of the Decade" lists and at the urging of friends and former students, I decided to take another look at Spike Lee's 25th Hour, which I had not seen since its release early in 2002 and remembered very little. I liked it more this time.
Set in New York, just after 9/11, we watch the last day and night of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton, great performance) before he's sentenced to prison for drug dealing. Perhaps meant to parallel (somewhat) the city after the tragedy of 9/11 as it faces an unknown future, Monty's toughness slips a bit as he prepares to enter the new world of prison. In the film's most discussed scene, early on, we watch Monty deliver a furious monologue into a mirror, telling virtually every racial and ethnic group in the city to fuck themselves before turning his hatred inward, saving the worst for himself ("Fuck you, Montgomery Brogan. You had it all, and you threw it away, you dumb fuck!). But as the film ends, Lee shows us a panorama of the city's various types slipping by as Monty's father drives him to prison, and Monty's anger has dissolved by this point, along with his lengthy protracted fantasy of escaping his fate by starting a new life out West and reinventing himself in the classic American fashion. Instead, he'll go to prison in the city, and hope that it's still there when he gets out.
Lee isn't working from his own screenplay here (it's written by David Benioff), but 25th Hour feels like a Lee film, perhaps most especially in Monty's monologue, which recalls a similar sequence in Lee's masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, where various characters vent their racial frustrations to the camera. Like that film, 25th Hour is also, in some ways, a slice-of-life picture that speculates on the future of the city. In Do the Right Thing, the destruction comes from within (the racial unrest between the various groups living in close quarters), but in 25th Hour it has come from without, in the unexpected form of 9/11, leaving everyone, if not united, at least perhaps moving toward some temporary hopefulness or, failing that, at least choosing to believe in one, as we see in the following bitterly funny exchange. Looking down on Ground Zero from a high-rise penthouse, Monty's friends discuss the air quality in the city:
"Yeah, The New York Times says the air's bad down here."
"Oh, yeah? Well, fuck The Times.I read the Post."