25th Hour

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 09/12/03 14:07:37

"A great movie of our times."
5 stars (Awesome)

(NOTE: THIS IS AN EDITED, MORE ACCURATE VERSION OF A REVIEW I WROTE IN JANUARY, 2003) On the surface, “25th Hour” tells the story of Monty Bergen (Edward Norton), a man who ended up choosing a life of crime, “got touched,” and has to pay the price: A seven-year stint in prison. The “25th Hour” represents his last night of freedom before incarceration. It represents a night of self-examination, regret, redemption and remorse. What happened? Why didn’t he go straight sooner? What skills does he have once he gets out? Who is he? But there exists more to “25th Hour” than its surface would suggest.

“25th Hour,” a Spike Lee joint, might be the first fictional movie to directly address what happened on September 11th, 2001 (I say ‘might’ because of a Sigourney Weaver movie titled “The Guys” that has yet to receive a release and I’m not sure when it was made). To my way of thinking, September 11th remains a touchy subject and if you make direct references to it in your movie, you better have a damn good reason. Spike Lee is no dummy, nor an opportunist. “25th Hour” makes these direct references to make a larger point than to just place the story in the here-and-now. In many ways, the story of Monty Bergen is the story of America, pre and post-9/11.

In the beginning, we see Monty tell an old junkie friend of his that he has gone straight. He lives in an upscale apartment that he pays for with his drug money. He lives with his younger Puerto Rican girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), whom he met on a playground when she was wearing her school uniform (she was 18 at the time). On the night of the farewell party, Monty reminisces about the fateful evening the narcotics officers paid a visit to Monty’s apartment and busted him without much resistance.

His life shattered, Monty tries to make his last night count. He asks Naturelle to wear a beautiful silver dress. He asks his two closest buddies, Jacob (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Francis (Barry Pepper), to join him on a night of fun and drinking before his dreaded first day in the pen. Monty feels scared out of his mind, but has the good sense not to show it around Naturelle. She may have been the one to help him get pinched, but he remains unaware. He doesn’t know who to trust.

Back to Monty’s friends for a moment. Jacob Elinsky works as a high school English teacher who tries desperately to resist his infatuation with a little hottie named Mary (Anna Paquin), who wears skimpy outfits to class. She flirts with him to try and get her grade up from a B- to an A, to no avail. Meanwhile, Francis Xavier Slaughtery, works on Wall Street as a trader who takes chances with $100 million just to feel alive. He pays close attention to statistics, such as who lives in the upper 62%-ile of men who get laid often. He lives next door to Ground Zero and declares, “Osama could drop another one right next door and I still wouldn’t move.”

All sorts of truths come out on this fateful evening, most of them in whispers. There never seems to be a moment amongst all these characters where the truth spills out at a rapid rate, as one would expect. Each character tries to place the blame on themselves for not intervening on Monty and his lifestyle. Francis seems to be the most complex. When Jacob vows that he will be there for Monty at the end of his seven-year run, Francis tells Jacob that he is lying to himself. Yet, when Francis has had a few drinks in him, he makes the same vow.

These are the sorts of little morality plays Lee’s film deals with, but there exists a much bigger matter at the core of “25th Hour,” that of the state of America’s consciousness. After September 11th, there seemed to be a perception in Hollywood that we would be seeing more patriotic movies coming out of the studios as a way of dealing with 9/11. This has not been the case. Leave it to Michael Moore and Spike Lee for not letting America off the hook so easy, for seeing through the blind patriotism and instead asking the tough questions.

Like Monty Bergen, America is a country trying to put its past behind it while still trying to get away with murder (and I mean ‘murder’ in a broad sense). In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, America has been trying to sweep slavery under the rug in order to move on. In the wake of Women’s Lib, America has been trying to be less openly sexist, while there still exists a male domination in the workforce. In the wake of the Gulf War, America has been, well, dropping bombs on a daily basis without much media coverage (pre-9/11). Technology grew in leaps and bounds, the economy boomed and we became complacent.

Like the narcotics officers invading Monty’s house, the attacks changed everything. We never thought it could happen, but it did. We thought we had put our problems behind us, but instead they came knocking at our door. The shock wore off, the attempt to return to normalcy was a bumpy ride at best, and only a few people dared ask: What did we do that would cause them to hate us so much? Nobody has the whole answer, of course. We turned our backs on Afghanistan and the religious fanatics took over, fanatics determined not to let us get away with anymore “crime” ever again. Who knew these fanatics were out there? Some knew, and like Francis and Jacob, nobody bothered telling.

As Monty does in the middle of the “25th Hour,” America had to look itself in the mirror and re-examine its faults. We had become too complacent. Like Monty and his friends, we had become morally ambiguous. We had become a country of leaders and teachers trying to get away with sex with underage students. We had become a country of greedy exploiters of third-world nations. We became media crazed and desensitized. We wondered how and when, after 9/11, we could return to normal, forgetting completely that for a few days after the attacks we had actually evolved as people. We had become less rude to one another. We had accepted our differences and we all came together for the giving of money and the donating of blood.

For this and many other reasons, to me, America remains a work-in-progress, and “25th Hour” examines that idea in unexpected ways. The movie addresses that there exist two, if not more, versions of the American Dream. There’s the upper-class Wall Street side where opportunities knock with the push of a few buttons. One can take $100 and turn it into $1 million and riches beyond their wildest dreams. Then there’s the other American Dream, the simple one. This Dream exists in simpler, more innocent terms, that one could come to America and start a new life without resorting to crime, get married, raise kids and not be bothered by the dark side of things.

The first part of “25th Hour” addresses how the American Dream has gone sour, that we remain a racist, sexist, homophobic, greedy and narcissistic country. But the second part, especially the last 15 minutes, addresses that the best part of America remains within reach. We can still be good people, good to each other and capable of giving rise to a new generation who will learn what we have learned from our mistakes. The final monologue (given by Brian Cox who plays Monty’s father) as well as the final shot—that of a battered, bruised America—conveys that the American Dream remains alive and worth fighting for, in spite of what we are, what terrorists have done to us and what we have done to ourselves.

If I sound as though I just jumped atop a little soapbox, let me remind you that Spike Lee directed this movie, and he tends to draw that out from some people. With his top-notch cast and a powerful, complex screenplay by David Benioff (based on his book, which he wrote before 9/11), Lee has put together the cinematic equivalent of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. “25th Hour” takes elements of drama, thriller and satire and fashions the story in a way that forces us to confront our country’s morality code at its least flattering.

I could go further with the metaphor of Monty Bergen as a symbol for America’s faults, but I’ll probably sound as though I’m reaching for something that doesn’t exist. But the metaphor does exist and Spike Lee is good to confront these issues without beating us over the head with them, as he has done in the past. Make no mistake. He is still making “Do The Right Thing,” and as he did with that movie, he takes the issues of “25th Hour” and forces us to examine them and make sense of them for ourselves, which is what great movies about touchy subjects should do. For this and many other reasons more suitable for a normal film review, “25th Hour” is my pick for Best Film of 2002.

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