With post-9/11 drama 25th Hour, Spike Lee proves once again that he resides in the highest echelon of contemporary American filmmakers. A turn of the millennium New York tapestry, 25th Hour, like the best of Lee's films, refuses to simplify drama to a narrative line or two. Lee explores not only personal dynamics, but sociopolitical, historical, moral, and ethical issues which come to bear on the characters. Lee's wide-ranging ambition can result in an untidiness or unevenness, but it is also the source of his distinctiveness and brilliance as a filmmaker.
Ostensibly, 25th Hour concerns the last hours of freedom for Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton), a convicted drug dealer handed a seven-year prison sentence. Monty is unquestionably guilty of the crime, but the film asks relativist questions concerning those around Monty. His buddies from prep school evince a dubious morality: one's a smug, cock-of-the-walk stockbroker (Barry Pepper) and the other, a disillusioned teacher played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, lusts for one of his teenage students (Anna Paquin). Monty's girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) takes plenty of heat for turning the other way while enjoying the fruits of the drug trade, while his father (Brian Cox), a retired firefighter, pushes booze to his comrades in the wake of 9/11. But Monty is the one who must pay the greatest price for his sins, and while Lee and screenwriter David Benioff (adapting his own novel) may question society's moral certainties, they do not flinch from Brogan's culpability in his own fate.
Nor does Brogan himself, and the intersection of Norton and Lee produces potent intellectual and emotional effects. Through Brogan, Lee again channels the river of American hate. In a virtuosic touch, Lee one-ups his own montage of racial tension from Do the Right Thing in a stylized mirror rant evoking the haphazard rage following 9/11 (especially in New York) and Brogan's own desultory self-hatred. Norton does his best work in years with the symphony of feeling laid before him here, a Shakespearean gamut of love and hate, suspicion and faith. The overriding metaphor of 9/11 to reflect the emotional and social ambiguity of these New Yorkers--and the best and worst of the American way--adds a unifying element to the story, the blue lights of Ground Zero serving as a haunting motif.
Not everything works in 25th Hour. For my taste, both former NFL star Tony Siragusa and Isiah Whitlock Jr. overplay their roles (as a Russian mobster and DEA agent, respectively). The film-framing metaphor of a scrappy dog for Brogan and, by extension, the compromised American working stiff, may be too on the (wet) nose. Generally, Lee rides the edge of too much, but only rarely falters.
What works will remain indelible as a national snapshot and emotional touchstone for years to come. Benioff's script serves up plenty of well-observed, funny banter. The music--from the nightclub pulses to Terence Blanchard's typically penetrating scoring--sets, sustains, and refreshes mood perfectly, while the ensemble of Brogan's family and friends hits all the right notes. Lee's visual sense continues to dazzle with overt and subtle choices (note how he highlights the value of key moments with stutter cuts). Lee leaves the audience with a powerful, elegaic sequence of the road not taken, which could just as well describe the cut threads of American lives on 9/11 or the dashed American dreams of the last 200 years.