When Spike Lee was criticized last month for including 9/11 conspiracy theorists in his HBO documentary series “NYC Epicenters 9 / 11-2021½”, historians and others expressed disappointment that Lee appeared to be giving credibility to claims long debunked. (He later edited them.) But for those of us who have followed Lee’s career, and his intersection with that seminal New York event of 20 years ago, the initial decision was particularly baffling – because Lee also directed what many consider to be the quintessential film about New York City after 9/11.
“25th Hour” is not a “9/11 movie”, at least not like “United 93” or “World Trade Center” is. In fact, the attacks were not part of the David Benioff screenplay that Lee had signed on to direct, nor of Benioff’s original novel (published January 2001). But Lee is an intuitive filmmaker, open to improvisation and adjustments – and, like ” New York Epicenters»Reminds us, he is a documentary filmmaker who saw his city in a moment of mourning, melancholy and transition, and wanted to capture it.
Most of Hollywood didn’t feel the same way. In the weeks following the attacks, feature films with terrorist intrigues, including Barry Sonnenfeld’s comedy “Big Trouble” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s vehicle “Collateral Damage”, were delayed and extensively reissued. Films still in production, such as “Men in Black II” and “Lilo & Stitch”, have been rewritten to suppress the echoes of September 11th. Skyline shots with the World Trade Center edited from “Kissing Jessica Stein”, “Igby Goes Down”, “People I Know” and “Spider-Man”, not yet released, and a sequence of this superhero trapping a helicopter in a web between the Twin Towers – the centerpiece of a popular trailer – has also been removed.
More controversially, some filmmakers have chosen to leave their skyline shots untouched, but to erase the Twin Towers with digital effects. And so the World Trade Center was erased from “Serendipity,” “Stuart Little 2,” “Mr. Deeds,” and “Zoolander” by Ben Stiller, which hit screens less than three weeks after the attacks. The director’s publicist explained at the time that he made the last minute decision to remove the towers because the film was an escape comedy and seeing the buildings “would defeat that goal.”
Spike Lee disagreed. “You couldn’t even show a image from the World Trade Center. “I said, we don’t do this. With the filming of “25th Hour” slated for the following winter, Lee began weaving 9/11 “into the fabric” of existing history, as star Edward Norton explained in the audio commentary. : “It was like looking at it from another story, but the melancholy that the city was full of that year. I feel like the emotional impact of September 11 is present throughout this film. “
“25th Hour” is the story of Monty Brogan (Norton), a white collar drug dealer we meet on the last day before he shows up for a seven year jail term. That night he heads to town with his childhood friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) and girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), apparently for one last blowout, but also to try to come to terms with the choices – and so, mistakes – he made in his life.
Explicit references to tragedy are therefore minimal. There’s the opening credits sequence, featuring the art installation ‘Tribute in Light,’ in which 88 projectors combined to create two beams depicting the fallen towers (Lee said he filmed it the same night he read it in The Times); Accompanied by the moving musical score by Terence Blanchard, these images say much more about the tragedy than any current event or exhibition dialogue. Occasionally, mayflies from this fall – American flags, makeshift memorials, Osama bin Laden research posters – appear in the background.
One scene, taken almost verbatim from the novel, shows Monty delivering a long, angry, profanity-laden monologue in a mirror, meticulously insulting New Yorkers of every race, religion, and class imaginable (before landing on his family, his friends and finally himself). Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have been added to the list of his targets.
Most poignantly, Lee moved a scene between Hoffman and Pepper to an apartment overlooking Ground Zero, and placed the actors in front of a large window to watch workers sift through human remains. “The New York Times says the air is bad in here,” Hoffman notes; Pepper denigrates the newspaper (“I read The Post”) and insists, “The EPA says it’s okay. (It was later revealed that the federal agency had misled the public.)
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