Plot Monty Brogan saves an injured dog. 4 years later, walking with the dog (now named Doyle), Brogan meets teacher, Jacob Elinsky and arranges to meet later that night. Elinksy extends the invitation to Frank Slaughtery, another friend, who is working as a Wall Street trader. Brogan then goes home to his girlfriend, Naturelle. In flashback we see Brogan’s apartment raided by the DEA who discover a large quantity of drugs and cash. Brogan visits his father at an Irish Pub on Staten Island and while visiting the bathroom is subjected to a rant against various ethnic groups and political leaders by his own reflection. Elinsky goes to Slaughtery’s apartment and by a window overlooking Ground Zero, they talk about Monty going to prison. In flashback we see Monty’s first meeting with Naturelle. Brogan joins Elinsky, Slaughtery and Naturelle at a bar before going to a club. At the club, Elinsky runs into one of his students, Mary, who accompanies them. Monty and his partner Kostya then go to speak to a group of Russian mobsters, run by Uncle Nikolai. Nikolai reveals that it was Kostya who sold Monty out. After leaving the club Monty gets Slaughtery to beat him up so that he is unattractive to other prisoners. Monty’s father arrives to take him to Otisville prison. As they drive Brogan’s father narrates an alternate ending–the two of them heading west; Naturelle joining them and starting a family. The film cuts back to the present as they drive onwards to Otisville (adapted from Gilbey 58).
Film note Spike Lee’s arrival as a key player in the mid- to late-1980s came at a time when many major studios were investing in left-field “semi-independent” projects. The trend led directly to the incredible success of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape (which returned $24m on a budget of $1.2m) and the rise of Tarantino and the Miramax empire, resulting in a consistent strand of “indie” filmmaking running alongside the mainstream through the contemporary period (Biskind 20-24). The movies produced by these semi-independent film companies are varied and it is naive to presume some intrinsic correlation between their marginal position and some kind of critical perspective. However, in the case of Lee his films have consistently broached difficult political and social issues and challenged industry norms of representation both on-screen and off (with his production company 40 Acres and a Mule actively fostering black talent). Lee has now transcended the New Black Cinema label pinned to him in the 1980s and brokered a commercial compromise with the Hollywood power brokers that have enabled him to become America’s preeminent political filmmaker.
That said, like Soderbergh, Lee’s role within the industry has remained relatively marginal, signalling the industry’s tendency to take prospective risks within a context of fiscal conservatism. He has directed sixteen feature films since his debut, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), many of which are set in New York and display an insistent focus on questions of race and African-American cultural experience (School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992)). More recently, and perhaps displaying a growing self-confidence, films like Summer of Sam (1999) and 25th Hour have branched into other ethnic milieus. Lee has also maintained an interest in television and documentary projects, including documentaries about the civil rights movement, Get on the Bus (1996), Four Little Girls (1997) and a scathing critique of the Bush government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006). Lee’s oeuvre points to an ability to blend political commentary and commercial viability, coupling modest budgets to reliable-enough returns on investment (with forays into television for more risky projects) that allow him to make entertaining and thought-provoking movies.
Lee’s ability to square political engagement with the vagaries of commercial filmmaking is indicated in the way in which he auditioned 25th Hour cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto. Prieto’s work on Amores Perros (2000) (a movie similar to 25th Hour in that it is set in a single city and examines questions of social class) had impressed Lee to the extent that he invited the Mexican to shoot a K-Mart ad campaign he was directing at the time (Massood). This kind of work in advertising (as well as music television) has long provided Lee with both a steady revenue stream and a space to develop his stylistic chops. The deal Lee brokered with Touchstone Pictures (an offshoot of Disney) also indicates Lee’s ability to strike a creative deal. Touchstone commissioned the film because they were concerned they did not have enough ‘adult-audience’ movies to promote for the Oscars. This granted Lee considerable artistic license but he was required by Touchstone to secure a high-profile lead (LeDuff). Initially, Tobey Maguire was lined up for the central role but was drawn away by other commitments to be replaced by Ed Norton (Maguire retains a producer’s credit) (Taubin 14). Capable of demanding huge premiums ($9m for Red Dragon (2002)), Norton agreed to work for a nominal fee of $500,000, a clear indication of Lee’s ability to secure talent above the level set by his modest budgets.
Running his usual tight ship, Lee shot the film in thirty-seven days in the early summer of 2001, and brought it in on its modest budget of $15m (LeDuff). Whilst the film was in post-production the 9/11 terrorist attacks resulted in widespread upheaval, and nowhere more so than in New York. At this point Lee took the decision to add explicit references to 9/11 to his film. Working closely with Prieto and Terence Blanchard, Lee crafted an opening sequence for the film showing New York at night and culminating in the ‘Tribute of Light’–two laser beams used as a memorial to mark the absence of the twin towers six months after the attack. Other elements were also added, including real photographs of eleven firefighters killed on 9/11 and the staging of key conversation between two characters in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero. Lee took a typically brave decision to present audiences with an opportunity to reflect on what the aftermath of the terrorist attacks might mean for New York and New Yorkers. Indeed, as Lee and his production team discussed how to add these elements to the film, the producers of films like Spiderman (2001) and Collateral Damage (2002), were discussing how to digitally manipulate their prints to remove any reference to the attacks. (The only other filmmaker adding 9/11 to a film in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was Martin Scorsese, who placed the twin towers in the closing montage sequence of Gangs of New York (2002)).
Upon release, the film failed to attract the kind of unreservedly positive press that might have secured it an Oscar nomination, with reviewers accusing the film of opportunism and insensitivity, as well as heavy-handedness. In interview, Lee expressed disappointment that the film opened in only five theatres in New York and Los Angeles and was then left to languish without a suitable marketing budget, only reaching 460 screens at its most visible (Spiderman, by way of contrast, opened on 3,500 screens). Hesitant reviews and Touchstone’s failure to back the film ensured the film a rough ride at the box office, with US grosses of only $13m. More generally, the fate of the film also points to a culture in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that was unwilling to look directly at the scars left in the cityscape of New York, preferring instead mainstream offerings of escape and elision.
After the difficult experience of 25th Hour, and with his stock falling, Lee made a détente with the industry to deliver Inside Man (2006), a generic heist movie with a $45m budget and an $88m return. His success allowed him to secure Touchstone’s support for Miracle at St. Anna (2008), a combat movie made after a long-running public spat with Clint Eastwood about the lack of African-American characters in the 1990s “Greatest Generation” war movie cycle. The film was made with a $45m budget and is currently flat lining at the US box office! Inside Man 2 is reportedly in pre-production, indicating that Lee’s politically adventurous, but perennially unstable, relationship with mainstream Hollywood will continue for the foreseeable future.
9/11 and New York Based on David Benhoiff’s novel of the same name (published in 2000) the script was completed and production started well before 9/11. As such the film might properly be read into the cultural context of the late 1990s where its story of cynicism, selfishness and ideological drift, as well as its therapeutic dramatic arc (in which Monty discovers the error of his ways and begins to heave to the work of change) is certainly attuned to a wider loss of personal and political direction and desire for change. Each of the key characters–Monty Brogan, Jacob Elinsky and Frank Slaughtery–wrestle with alienation, regret, guilt and a lack of self-belief. At key moments of hiatus in the narrative each character is privileged with a shot in a mirror in which they contemplate their “distorted or fractured reflection” in the light of their desire to change themselves and their acknowledgement of the difficulty of achieving this change (Gilbey 58). Offering none of the redemptive magical realism of Magnolia (1999) or the collective coming together in the face of disaster of Deep Impact (1998), 25th Hour offers the viewer similar character studies of listlessness, regret and self-doubt. In tune with American Beauty (1999) and Fight Club (1999), 25th Hour registers the wider personal and political loss of direction that marked the 1990s as deeply affecting American masculinity (Gilbey notes that Naturelle is not given the same opportunity for introspection as the male characters) (Gilbey 58).
While the film clearly riffs on the cultural malaise of the late 1990s, the decision taken in post-production to refer directly to the events of 9/11, repositions the film as simultaneously a pre- and post-9/11 movie. The mass media invested heavily in 9/11 as a cataclysmic event that marked a powerful violation of American innocence, with life fundamentally altered in its aftermath; however, 25th Hour’s production before, during and after the attack provides us with a glimpse of how America attempted to register, decipher and contain the experience of 9/11 using frameworks for thinking about self, city and society that had their point of origin in the preceding period. As Amy Taubin puts it: “25th Hour captures the uncanny feeling … that nothing has changed and yet everything is completely different” (Taubin 14). Set in the course of one day, 25th Hour shows key moments of Monty’s life in flashback and this structure interleaves past and present experiences, contrasting markedly with the sharp caesura 9/11 was proposed to represent by the mainstream media. The film’s tag-line–“Can you change your whole life in a day?”–and the presumed answer, “No, you will have to serve your time,”–suggests that the film wishes to encourage an attitude of self-reflection on how actions in the past lead to consequences in the present and how change will require long term commitment and self-sacrifice.
The film remains extremely faithful to the source novel and in interview Lee has stated that it was decided to create a post-9/11 mood around the existing script rather than alter key events in the narrative (Felperin 15). A key way of understanding this “mood” is to focus on the film’s description of New York. Amy Taubin claims that Lee’s films are “positively Shakespearean in their depiction of the relationship between individuals and their society” (Taubin 13). Her comments point to the ways in which Lee finds individual stories that are capable of registering and dramatising the conflict and chaos that gives shape to the city, to America, and to society and history more generally. 25th Hour can certainly be read as an addition to Lee’s collection of microcosmic studies of New York’s different boroughs (Bedford-Stuyvesant in Do The Right Thing (1989), Harlem and Bensonhurst in Jungle Fever (1991) and the Bronx in Summer of Sam (1999). However, its depiction of the city also marks a shift in register. Whereas Lee’s earlier films invariably tell stories of conflict and difference using a mise-en-scène and film technique that represents (redeems?) the city with an effusive energy and eclecticism, the New York of 25th Hour is dark, understated, steely and grey. One reviewer observed that the “bleached colours suggest a city covered with ashes” (“Monty’s Wake” 79), while another noted, “Lee’s use of space expertly evokes the general air of a city bereft. Emptiness pervades the screen–not just in the physical absence of the towers, but in the presence of the Hudson, which in several crane shots occupies the lion’s share of the frame, isolating characters on a tiny crumb of river bank in the lower left-hand corner” (Gilbey 58). Although a certain stylistic exuberance persists–jump cuts, actors placed on dollies, trademark cutaways and so on–the film’s style is low key and introspective.
Post-9/11, this melancholic, dark and solemn description of the city is not restricted to 25th Hour. Graham Fuller observes how in the thriller In the Cut (2003) “punctuating shots (of cutaways to flags flapping in the breeze and gothically angled tenement rooftops, fire escapes, water towers)–shown from some unseen prowling observer’s point of view–clearly connote the post 9/11 landscape in which the very air between the buildings is unsafe.” (Fuller 17). A similar mise-en-scène and “jittery” editing technique appear in the television series, CSI: New York (2004-ongoing) and The Brave One (2007). Writing in the New York Times, Stephen Holden notes this shift as a more general tendency, with 25th Hour one of a clutch of movies that sought to acknowledge New York’s dark, nasty side at a time when the city was being celebrated for its collective coming together in response to the terrorist attacks (Holden 2003). For Lee and others, New York’s structural conflicts and racial tensions remained very much at large.
“Fuck you” Unsurprisingly for a Lee-directed film, these structural conflicts and tensions (contextualised in a somber, post-9/11 cityscape) focus on racial identity and social inequality. Long-time Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard’s score, while occasionally intrusive, attempts to annex something of an eastern theme (mixing Irish and Arabic folk traditions). The score combines with Lee’s astute quotation of rock and pop music, which includes a track by Bruce Springsteen that recalls his seminal album, The Rising, which responded to the events of 9/11 with a commitment to blending American folk traditions (black, white and other) in an attempt to produce a suitably positive and inclusive response to the terrorist attacks. Choices such as these are indicative of the myriad ways the film registers the complex blending of racial groups that make up American society.
The film also carefully places the three main protagonists within their Irish-Catholic working class (Monty and Frank) and Jewish middle-class (Jacob) contexts, and Monty’s marriage to Naturelle Riviera (Puerto Rican) and friendship with Kostya Novotny (Russian) extends the range of ethnicities in play within the core dramatic narrative. As the three men wrestle with their consciences, their struggle often involves a sounding out of difference: this involves a forensic scrutiny of their own choices and commitments (and the relationship between father and son is key here) but more significantly the negotiation with otherness. For example, Monty suspects both Naturelle and Kostya of his betrayal, a suspicion perhaps founded on their racial difference (significantly, in the novel Monty knows from the outset that Kostya has sold him out).
The key sequence in this respect is the scene in which Monty stares at his reflection in the toilet of his father’s bar and his reflection then subjects him to a racist and misanthropic rant. Signalling the sequence’s potential for controversy and making it intriguing from a critical perspective, the monologue (which appears in the novel) was taken out of the script at the request of Touchstone (who felt it would make Monty unsympathetic) only to be reinstated at Lee’s insistence (Felperin 15; Massood 9). What seems clear is that the sequence is an integral part of the complex characterisation that shapes the film in the service of a wider dialectic designed to activate reflection and debate. The rant attacks the homeless, Blacks, Jews, the NYPD, the Church, Jesus Christ, Chelsea homosexuals, Bensonhurst Italians, rich Upper East Side wives, Hasidic Jews, Russian mobsters, Korean grocers, Pakistani and Sikh taxi drivers, Wall Street brokers, Enron, Cheney and Bush (“…they knew”), Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, his friends, his girlfriend, his father and Osama Bin Laden. Crucially, as Monty vents his spleen, cutaways show the people who are the victims of the tirade: New Yorkers who at the beginning of the sequence appear to conform to and reflect Monty’s stereotypical view but who by the end of the sequence look directly at the camera as if to challenge his hate-fuelled invective. The sequence ends with Monty telling his alter ego (in effect, himself) to go fuck himself, suggesting that the loathing of others stems from a deep-seated self-loathing. In fact, it would seem a justifiable reading to take his misanthropy as an externalisation of this deep-seated self-loathing. This personal disgust emanates from Monty’s increasing awareness that he has “been living high on other people’s miseries” (O’Neill 6). It is a theme that runs through the film in which people in positions of authority (drug-dealer, city financier, high-school teacher) take advantage of those weaker than themselves. The inclusion of Enron in the “fuck you” sequence, with the assertion that Bush, Cheney “knew” about the scandal, implies that self-serving exploitation goes all the way to the very top.
Patricia O’Neill writes that Lee reveals “New York City as a contact zone, a place where […] cultures clash because of asymmetrical power relations” (O’Neill 2). The key sequence filmed at Ground Zero certainly resonates here, with the desolate empty space marking the ultimate “contact” between west and east (it is perhaps no surprise that the imagery so unsettled the film’s reviewers). Amy Taubin writes that, “[t]he subtext of their conversation–their sense of guilt, anger and powerlessness at having done nothing to keep their friend from disaster–suggests something of what New Yorkers feel about the 9/11 attack, once again drawing a parallel between past actions and the present day consequences of those actions” (Taubin 14). This critique of callous indifference to social inequality (as a possible cause of a general cultural loss of direction and a significant factor in the precipitation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks) remains somewhat implicit in 25th Hour but is made explicit in When the Levees Broke, which analyses how powerful corporate interests in the aftermath of a natural disaster preyed on the dispossessed (in this case, the mainly black victims of the strategic impoverishment upon which the system in Louisiana was founded). By activating a critique of the system (and its victims within America and further afield, with New York standing in for globalisation and its ill effects) 25th Hour hints that America requires a period of forensic self-reflection in which it admits that its power and status comes at the expense of others. This kind of structural critique becomes more visible in Hollywood’s output from 2004 onwards, with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq going badly, but it is a sensibility difficult to find in the period immediately following 9/11 and which marks 25th Hour as a distinctive and unusual film.
There is a redemptive note, however. Monty’s self-loathing is a sign of his ability to reflect and change himself, to recognise he has done wrong and to atone for his sins. The film shows him embarking on this process: avoiding easy fixes, accepting his prison sentence, and willingly subjecting himself to physical and emotional punishment. The “fuck you” sequence, for example, is leavened at the film’s close as many of the characters who were subject to Monty’s racial slurs and accusations reappear and wave to him as he leaves the city on his way to prison. As he finds peace with himself and accepts his punishment, his hatred of others dissipates and the dispossessed of the city wish him well. (That said, the film retains its disdain for self-serving politicians, financiers and Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, undoing only the antagonism between social and racial groups who are often scapegoated and, in fact, have much in common). As his father drives him to prison the film offers the viewer an alternative ending: as they drive west (and with his father as narrator) we see Monty starting a new modest life and, with time, raising a family. This is the conventional Hollywood ending that would give the film uplift (Lee experimented with a similar premise in Clockers (1995)). Yet, post-9/11, easy closure of this sort would be an extension of the eschewal of personal responsibility that the film has shown to be the root cause of America’s social and cultural malaise. Monty must serve his time if he is ever to get back to those values and experiences that his criminal behaviour has distanced him from. The film ends with the car carrying Monty ignoring the road west and travelling towards prison, indicating how the film believes that in order to make America truly socially democratic, Americans must take responsibility for themselves and their actions.
Benhoiff, David. 25th Hour. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000. Print.
Biskind, Peter. Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004. Print.
Felperin, Leslie. “Interview: Spike Lee.” Sight and Sound, 13.4 (2003): 15. Print.
Fuller, Graham. “Sex and Self-Danger.” Sight and Sound, 13.11 (2003): 16-18. Print.
Gilbey, Ryan. “Review: 25th Hour.” Sight and Sound, 13.3 (2003): 58. Print.
Holden, Stephen. “New York, Post-9/11 and Pre-.” The New York Times, 5 Jan 2003. Web. 31.03.11.
LeDuff, Charles. ”Box Office He Wants, Not a Drink.” The New York Times, 15 Dec 2002. Web. 31.03.11.
Massood, Paula. “The Quintessential New Yorker and Global Citizen: An Interview with Spike Lee.” & “Doyle’s Law: An Interview with David Benioff.’ Cineaste, 28.3 (2003): 4-6, 8-10. Print.
“Monty’s Wake: A Spiky American Poet Sings for his Country.” The Economist. 15 March 2003: 79. Print.
O’Neill, Patricia, “Where Globalization and Localization Meet: Spike Lee’s 25th Hour.” Cineaction!, 64 (2004): 2-7. Print.
Saunders, James. The Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Print.
Taubin, Amy. “Going Down.” Sight and Sound, 13.4 (2003): 13-15.
Written by Guy Westwell (2008); edited by Nick Jones (2011), Queen Mary, University of London
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Copyright © 2011 Guy Westwell/Mapping Contemporary Cinema