Released: 2002
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: David Benioff, based on his novel
Running time: 135 minutes
Starring: Edward Norton, Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin

Synopsis: The life of a successful young Manhattanite is about to be torn apart after he is sentenced to seven years for selling drugs. His final day of freedom plays out as a reflection on personal responsibility and on America itself.

25th Hour is the latest film from Spike Lee, starring Edward Norton as a small-time drug dealer who is about to be put away for seven years after the police finally get to him. The theme of crime and violence in New York City is hardly a new one for a Spike Lee movie (remember Do the Right Thing, Clockers, and to an extent He Got Game). But the difference - as no end of critics and enthusiasts have pointed out - is that this is the first major film to be set in New York since September 2001: Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York may have been made first, but that was set in the 19th century.

Lee is a New Yorker who has spent his movie career documenting the highs and lows of the city he obviously loves. Inescapably, the memory of September 11 hangs over this entire film. Not so much in the form of direct images: in only one scene do we see Ground Zero, and only once do we hear any characters mention the attack. The story itself, which was written in 2000 by novelist David Benioff, is independent of September 11. Rather, Lee uses the story as a metaphor for the attacks and for America, giving the movie a double significance.

The story follows the final days of the sharp young Manhattanite Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) before his seven year jail sentence for selling drugs (on school property indeed). Unaware of who tipped him off, in despair at the life he is about to lose, and determined to make the most of his last day, we see him make up with his father (a hard-working Irish-American played by Brian Cox) and then meet up with two old friends (played by Pepper and Hoffman), who arrange for him a final night of real living before he is taken away and his life destroyed.

I found (others may disagree) that this movie was somewhat slow getting started, but once the seriousness of Brogan's situation kicks in, the story picks up. Although Benioff's dialogue is not outstanding, his characters and their stories have, on the whole, the power to grip the viewer. Brogan himself is an inscrutable character: Norton makes him sharp and taciturn but not unpleasant; the enormity of what he faces breaks down his tough exterior to reveal a more delicate man. The other most intriguing character is Frank Slaughtery (played by Barry Pepper), an old friend of Brogan, another sharp young man who is ruthless in his day job trading bonds on Wall Street but more philosophical and humane outside it. Meanwhile, there is an interesting (if somewhat irrelevant) sub-plot in which Brogan's other friend Jakob, an English teacher played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, gets involved, despite his own modest nature, with his student Mary (Anna Paquin).

What are Lee and Benioff trying to do with this movie? If it were made five years ago, it might have stood as a philosophical reflection on freedom (which Brogan is about to lose) and responsibility (which he is about to face up to). Now, of course, it plays out as an evaluation of America's role in the devastating terrorist attacks, and as a tribute to the city which survived them. Almost every story or incident can be read - if you want - as a metaphor for September 11. Brogan is a brash and confident man who takes his own wrongdoings too far and ends up very severely punished for it (Benioff's dialogue does not skirt over the issue of what is likely to happen to a good-looking young man in a tough jail). This can be read as representing America's own misdeeds and the terror it eventually had to face. One early scene, in which Brogan stares at a mirror and exclaims "Fuck you" at every aspect of New York that he hates, obviously has a higher significance to it.

But the story is not entirely dependent on its own allegorical theme. There is enough in the plot and sub-plots to maintain an interest at the simple level of storytelling; certainly, Benioff wrote the book (although not the screenplay) before the terrorist attacks. And despite the many clues to the movie's historical significance, Lee's style of direction for this one is not particularly subtle: this is a brash, modern movie, to suit the city it pays tribute to. As critics have noted, the storyline owes something to the realm of fantasy: it seems unlikely that Brogan would be given such a day of freedom after his conviction, and the idea of his father driving him to jail, only to suggest - fiendishly! - that they simply drive out of New York, is ludicrous. But Edward Norton's performance is certainly compelling, as are those of Pepper and Paquin.

Despite its flaws, 25th Hour is powerful and moving: the storytelling itself is accomplished, and Lee bravely expresses his own thoughts on both the guilt and the glory of his country and his city.


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