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25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
Iím sure no matter what itís critical reception, Spike Leeís masterful 25th Hour will go down in history and trivia books as the first major Hollywood production to directly address the terrorist attacks of September 11th, but itís really so much more than that. Itís too damn rare that such an intelligently conceived, tautly executed, politically astute film gets made. This is an adult drama that has a distinct, unmistakable viewpoint, and thatís nothing new for a Spike Lee film, but here he shows an unusual amount of control over his considerable talent. Many of Leeís past films have built up the level of tension until they flew right off the rails (Bamboozled is the prime offender on those grounds), but 25th Hour opens at fever pitch, spinning tension before the audience could possibly understand why thereís any, and then continues to maintain that mood for an astonishing amount of time. The filmís plot, which traces the actions of convicted drug dealer Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton) on his last day of freedom before incarceration obviously lends itself to an air of anxiety, but even the quietest moments here feel potentially explosive.
Matter-of-factly set in a traumatized post-attack New York City, thereís such profound unease permeating throughout that every interaction threatens to become another Ground Zero. As catastrophic and profound as the impact of that disaster is to these characters, the impact that Montyís arrest has on them is just as devastating and more immediate. In both cases, blame is assigned with reckless abandon and some terribly messy feelings are kept bottled up. Montyís friendsí attempt to set all of their tangled feelings aside so they can show him a good time before he leaves them is willful delusion, but itís also a necessary coping mechanism as they strive to achieve some fleeting sort of normalcy. Itís a situation so difficult that it begs for empathy not just for the people who are losing Monty, but also for the offender himself. The film doesnít excuse Montyís behavior, but instead chases the more interesting question of whether or not heís willing to take responsibility for what heís done. In doing so, the superb script by first time screenwriter David Benioff pries into the demands that we place on our legal system in a way that no American crime film since Dead Man Walking has bothered to.
To say that the tension level remains at peak levels throughout is not to imply that anything about 25th Hour is monotonous. There are certainly peaks here, such as Montyís impassioned soliloquy, delivered into a mirror, but they as powerfully put forward as they are they never overpower the concerns at the movieís heart. Throughout the film, characters drift in and out of the picture, effectively demonstrating how, even at the worst of times, for better or for worse, no man is an island. The ripples of Montyís misfortune pervade throughout, causing everyone close to him to look closely at their relationship, and in doing so the script never falters. Besides creating two credible, fully developed best friends for Monty (played by the equally brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper), the film can boast the most fully realized father-son relationship in recent memory. This focus on the ensemble turns this story into one that examines the functions of community and camaraderie and its ability to adapt under pressure, and because Lee places Monty in a communal context, itís almost seamless when he expands the scope of his story to the point where it incorporates civic and national concerns.
Such talk makes 25th Hour sound like more drudgery than it is, but thatís because itís the rare entertaining genre film that manages to be about something pertinent, and itís difficult not to get excited by that. Though the movie is relatively light on action, Lee never allows the loquaciousness to stomp out his visual style. He uses his heightened images, his superbly mixed soundtrack, and, perhaps most importantly, his frank sentiments without embarrassment. The boldness of the filmmaking suggests remarkable faith in the message being sold, and nowhere is that confidence more apparent than in the filmís sure-to-be-divisive final ten minutes. For this viewer, Leeís most audacious touches are the ones that pay off most wonderfully here. Because compromise doesnít seem to be an issue on so many levels in 25th Hour, itís disappointing that some of the storyís structure seems more obligatory than necessary. Thereís a whodunit plot attached that is vaguely unsatisfying and an interrogation scene that seems to exist solely so that two scenes without Monty are split up, but even those weaker moments have dialogue thatís so well written and delivered that complaining seems foolish.
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