Tuesday, 12 April 2011

25th Hour (2002) - Quite an immediate response to American identity post 9/11

Viewing Context:
By complete coincidence, as I finished watching American History X, I just caught the end of the BBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are? Where surreally, Spike Lee was sat down with an elderly white woman telling her that she was his distant cousin or something. Well in a nifty bit of programming, the Beeb followed this up with 25th Hour. This being another film starring Ed Norton and dealing with issues of imprisonment, I thought it quite apt timing, creating a well curated accidental double bill.

As noted above, it is directed by Spike Lee, though in contrast to his earlier works, where the story was predominantly born from his mind, this is an adaptation of a David Benioff novel. Benioff also wrote the screenplay, which I am always keen to see happen when someone's work is being adapted.

What happened:
Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) has been done for being a pretty big-daddy drug dealer, working with a bunch of Russians. The film charts his final day tying up loose knots and trying to figure out the true state of the situation, along with the betrayal that has led him to this point.

What I liked:
Simplicity: The best thing was to create a relatively simple scenario, yet pack in so much depth and a wealth of cultural commentary, without losing anything from the characters and the relationships. I know that every film should get this combination right, but it is underrated when a film strikes the balance this well. I will touch on both separately.
The relationships: This final day causes Monty to question many things. His paranoia, amplified by his impending incarceration makes him shun his girlfriend Naturalle (Rosario Dawson) under unconfirmed suspicion that she turned him in. This understandable but frustrating scenario builds in such a way to create a convincingly emotional final act (for a soft-ass like me anyway). The relationship with his friends Jake (Philip Seymour Hoffman)and Frank (Barry Pepper) are less straight forward, but equally convincing. The three of them couldn't be more different; they all now live completely different lives. Before they come together they acknowledge that they don't even know why they're friends, yet as the night progresses, the true bonds are illustrated.
Social commentary: What does it mean to be American? There is a great deal of reference to immigrants; there is a lot made of his own Irish heritage, of her Puerto Rican heritage and of course there is the Russian gang (See themes below for more).
Dialogue: The dialogue was constantly sharp and entertaining, but there were a couple of specific monologues that really captivated. (see themes and 'scene of the film' below).

Immigration and Americanness: New York City takes on a real character in the film, as it does in many narratives, where it comes to embody 21st Century city life. Here it seems to be specifically representing 21st century urban American identity. The film appears to be a rather positive response - without being jingoistic - to post 9/11 American identity; the flawed but overall decent spirit of the American dream, and the inability to halt its existence and progress despite setbacks. What really brings this to the fore is the backdrop set as the rebuilding of ground zero. This regeneration is seen in one scene out of the window during a conversation between Jake and Frank, discussing this forthcoming final night together. "It's over after tonight Jake, wake the fuck up", which is the defeatist attitude that could have been taken post 9/11. After the conversation the camera lingers on the urban regeneration taking place outside, displaying the opposite to this defeatist attitude; that what has happened has happened and the future is uncertain, but life goes on and things (be it a city, a group of friends, or society as a whole) are rebuilt.
Immigration/ethnicity: As eluded to in the 'what I liked' section above, along with this sincere yet positive view of American identity, the film goes at lengths to emphasise that America is by its nature made up from a diverse, often hybridised and unfixed ethnic mix.
American dream: Unavoidable when considering notions of Americanness is the idea of the American dream; what are its failings? The film takes such a nuanced and balanced approach. I have said that I thought the film overall was positive about the theory of 'America', but it balances this by acknowledging some of its flaws. There is a scene where Monty's reflection speaks to him, going on a real rant, blaming any other ethnic groups he could think of (Indian taxi drivers, Korean store owners - note that these are mostly entrepreneurial individuals) for pushing him to this point. The scene is vintage Spike Lee, reminiscent of the race based rants in the middle of Do the Right Thing. After this, he simply replies: "No, fuck you Montgomery Brogan. You had it all, and you threw it away, you dumb fuck". This line is later supported by what is frequently acknowledged as being the problem with American individualistic, free market principles: "I Got greedy and fucked myself".
Those that turn a blind eye: In a further comment on this situation, the fact that those who benefit from this greed conveniently don't do anything to stop it, knowing that they are benefiting with little personal jeopardy. Therefore there are characters critical of Naturalle, who undoubtedly benefits from Monty's amassing wealth. This situation has a sly jab at those who criticise - the broad and vague term of - globalisation, whilst wearing their Puma trainers and Gap tops. Governments' blind eye toward cases like the Enron scandal are fittingly used in the film to continue this theme.

Scene of the film:
The above mentioned rant was vintage Spike Lee and said everything the film was trying to comment on the American dream, the deference of responsibility prominent in capitalism and the need to own up to one's own mistakes. It was like poetry; lyrical and direct.

Performance of the film:
Everyone had their place, but Norton carried the whole thing and deserves recognition for that monologue alone. Cameo of the film is Isiah Whitlock Jr, aka Clay Davies from The Wire. He comes complete with what came to be the character's trademark "sheeeeeeeeeeet".

Final Word:
I haven't read the book, but I see that it came out early 2001, so any of my post 9/11 reading must come from Lee's directorial input, or possibly when Benioff adapted it into a screenplay. Either way it was quite an immediate response.

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