Going Down

Film still for Going Down

In Spike Lee's 25th Hour, New York's post-9/11 mood is matched by one man's fear of prison, says Amy Taubin.

Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Abel Ferrara and Jonas Mekas are the great contemporary New York City film-makers. For them, New York is not merely a location; it's a generative force, an encompassing presence, even an obsession. Of the four, Lee is the first to make a feature set in the post-9/11 city. (The less said about the image of the Twin Towers in the final montage of Gangs of New York the better.)

Lee's 25th Hour charts a very special day in the life of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton). It's his last day as a free man, the last day before he goes upstate to do a seven-year prison term for drug dealing. Monty is trying to keep fear and anger in check as he ties up the loose ends in his life: finding a home for Doyle, his mostly pit-bull mutt; reconciling with his Dad (Brian Cox); having a final blast with his two best friends, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Slaughtery (Barry Pepper); and figuring out if his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) ratted him out to the cops. He's also asking himself whether putting a bullet through his brain or going on the lam would be preferable to seven years of getting fucked up the ass, no metaphor intended.

The screenplay was written by David Benioff from his own first novel. It could be that Benioff, who has an ear for the way more or less cool guys talk and who has become a hot screenwriter since the novel's publication, had a film in mind from the outset. What's worth remarking, however, is that 25th Hour, the first 'Spike Lee joint' where the director doesn't take a writing credit, is unusually faithful to the characters, individual scenes and overall structure of the novel.

This fidelity places the film at the opposite end of the adaptation spectrum from, for instance, Alexander Payne's much lauded About Schmidt, which in its milieu and social relations moves so far from the Louis Begley novel on which it's based as to obliterate any connection except the title and the plot element of a man being outraged because his daughter is marrying down the social ladder. Begley's About Schmidt is set in the old-money, fading WASP enclaves of East Hampton and Manhattan's upper Eastside. The novel's central character is a 60-year-old lawyer who goes into a tailspin when his wife dies and his daughter decides to marry a Jew specifically, the token Jewish lawyer in his own white-shoe firm. Payne's film transposes the setting to small-town, middle-class middle America. Jack Nicholson's Schmidt, a retired insurance executive who bears the burdens of unexpected bereavement and lifelong Protestant repression with no grace whatsoever, is appalled by the effusiveness of his Jerry Springer-fied future in-laws. The conflict between pinch-faced gentility and in-your-face vulgarity, played strictly for laughs, lacks a certain scope when compared with the class and cultural tensions of the novel. (In Begley's book, the virulently anti-Semitic Schmidt winds up falling in love with a Hispanic cleaning woman 30 years his junior.)

In the case of About Schmidt, the departures from the original are blatantly overdetermined. Payne was raised in the Midwest; anti-Semitism is not an audience-friendly issue; and a New York white-shoe lawyer would have been as much of a stretch for Nicholson as the Park Avenue bond trader in The Bonfire of the Vanities was for Tom Hanks not to mention that the disaster of the De Palma film continues to make upper-crust New York social satire off-limits as far as Hollywood is concerned. Given that the studios are wary of New York as anything more than a background for movies that can be sold in terms of their genre the thriller; the romantic comedy; the showbiz, gangster or corporate saga of success and sometimes failure it's amazing that Scorsese and Lee, whose films are positively Shakespearean in their depiction of the relationship between individuals and their society, are ever financed by the industry. (For Mekas, as an avant-garde film-maker, and Ferrara, as an underground independent, the struggle, while just as difficult, takes place on a different economic scale.)

But however nervous they are about films that make even glancing reference to contemporary political or social issues, the studios couldn't ignore the problem of depicting the post-9/11 condition forever. With a budget of about $15 million, 25th Hour was cheap enough to be regarded as an experiment, not to mention that there was a star attached to the project Edward Norton, who agreed to work for less than a tenth of his going rate. Lee's approach must have seemed comfortingly indirect, as well. Basically, the director took a novel that was published in 2000 and updated it to 2002 simply by adding about a dozen lines of dialogue, shooting one scene in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero (cleared of debris, its smooth surface suggests a giant, empty parking lot), covering one wall of Monty's father's bar with photos of dead firefighters, and incorporating the mile-high beams of blue light that marked the first anniversary of 9/11 into the opening, ravishingly beautiful montage of the Manhattan skyline at night. 25th Hour captures the uncanny feeling of New Yorkers fortunate enough not to have suffered a direct loss in the attack that nothing has changed and yet everything is completely different.

While unquestionably one of the better American films of 2002, 25th Hour is seemingly slight in relation to Lee's other work. It hasn't a quarter the heart of Clockers (1995) nor half the brains of Summer of Sam (1999), to mention only two of the director's grossly undervalued films, both directly relevant to the one at hand. Like Summer of Sam, 25th Hour takes place during a traumatic moment in New York City history, is set in an almost entirely Caucasian milieu, and involves the ambivalent feelings of boyhood friends who, as adults, have little in common except a reciprocal sense of loyalty mixed with guilt. As in Clockers, the protagonist is a drug dealer caught in a vice of his own making, with the law bearing down on one side and a murderous mob boss on the other.

The 24-hour time frame lends a coherent structure to a film that otherwise might have seemed burdened with digressions, flashbacks and set pieces. It's basically the same narrative strategy Lee employed in Do the Right Thing (1989). 25th Hour's propulsive quality is the result of two factors: Barry Alexander Brown's jittery editing (Brown can turn a series of reverse-angle shots into a rhythmic wonder, the cuts never falling exactly where you expect) and Norton's performance. Part weasel, part Renaissance prince, Norton looks like a guy whose cool, eroding from the inside, has become tissue-paper thin. The actor does nothing to make the character more likeable than he should be an amoral heroin dealer, who never thought twice about what he was selling or to whom and paradoxically that's what makes us care, just a smidgen, about what happens to him. To err is human, and if the character who errs is devoted to his dog, that buys more than a subway token's worth of sympathy.

Lee is more interested in the rituals and psychology of male bonding (between man and dog, among heterosexual boyhood friends) than in anti-hero Monty Brogan. Monty and Slaughtery grew up together in a working-class Irish neighbourhood. They became buddies in high school with Jacob, a Jewish kid from a rich family, because they could trust him in ways they couldn't trust each other. Monty trusts Jacob to give his dog Doyle a good home, something he could never trust Slaughtery to do. Despite the differences among their personalities (the difference between middle-class Jewish guilt and working-class Irish-Catholic guilt cannot be discounted), all three are drawn to situations where self-destruction looms large. Monty had a feeling it was time to stop dealing drugs six months before he was caught, but he couldn't resist making one more big score. Slaughtery is a financial futures trader who gambles with other people's money but gets his thrills from risking his own career in the bargain. Jacob, who has become a teacher at the same prep school he attended with Monty and Slaughtery, is infatuated with one of his teenage students, largely because he knows he'll be fired if he's caught putting a hand on her.

Given the film's post-9/11 setting, you have at least to question if this tendency to walk close to the edge is a character trait nurtured by New York itself and perhaps partly accounts for why few people moved out of the city in the wake of the disaster. In one of Lee's most striking recontextualisations of a scene from the novel, Jacob and Slaughtery discuss Monty's future (or rather, lack of one) while looking down at the site where the World Trade Towers once stood from a window in Slaughtery's apartment. The 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. But then music swells portentously (Terence Blanchard's heavy-handed score is the film's near-fatal flaw), the camera zooms in on the emptiness below and all the subtlety of the scene goes literally out the window.

There are a number of similarly miscalculated moments scattered through the film, most of them suggestive of Lee's need to goose up his own wavering interest in the material. It's a mistake to stick Jacob on the dolly with the camera lens practically pasted to his face after he's drunkenly succumbed to temptation during Monty's farewell party. That Lee used the same set-up during Malcolm's fatal drive to the Audubon Ballroom in Malcolm X (1992) makes it even more jarring when it's employed in circumstances that are anything but heroic. The same is true of the non-diegetic close-ups of African-American, Asian and Hispanic faces, a crude way of reminding us that although the characters in this film are Caucasian, they live in a racially diverse city. The inserts are particularly confusing in the scene where Monty looks in the mirror and projects his anger at himself into a litany of "fuck yous" that includes every ethnicity, race and class. If the meaning of the scene is that no matter how hard Monty tries to blame his predicament on everyone else in the world, he can't escape his own reflection, then why does Lee show us all these cutaways and from what point of view are we seeing them? Despite the muddle, the scene is stunning for one update to Monty's inventory, which is otherwise taken in its entirety from the novel a "fuck you" to the Enron crooks followed by a six-word statement that Norton underplays to devastating effect: "Bush and Cheney knew, they knew."

The barely repressed anger that in this film becomes the defining characteristic of white masculinity is unleashed in the climactic scene where Monty goads Slaughtery into beating his face to a pulp so he won't look like a pretty boy when he gets to prison. If he looks really ugly, he has a chance of avoiding what he most fears about incarceration emasculation as a result of anal rape. 25th Hour is not the first film to raise the spectre of jailhouse rape. There have been dozens of movies (comedies as well as dramas) in the past two decades that have given at least lip service to the subject, usually as a way of venting a more general and otherwise unspeakable homophobic anxiety. Monty's rape fantasies are also prominent in Benioff's novel. But it's the connection between Monty's personal fear of emasculation and the sense of emasculation that is at the centre of the post-9/11 malaise that makes 25th Hour so haunting more after the fact than during the actual viewing. Sometimes a skyscraper is just a skyscraper, but that's not the case with the Twin Towers, which always had a blatantly phallic charge and never so much as when they were brought down. (The same could be said of Iraq's 'oversized' missiles.) After all, the image of the Pentagon with a big hole in its centre was relegated within a week to the Avid wastebasket of history while the image of the Twin Towers on fire has been fetishised to an even greater degree than the image of the first atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima. The weakness in 25th Hour is that Lee can't sustain his interest in Monty. What he cares about is New York, in the grip of a castration-anxiety dream that will permeate its collective unconscious long after Monty Brogan has served his time.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012