Spike Lee’s latest film marks a massive departure from his usual output. I have always had a great admiration for his skills as a filmmaker, but have often felt that he has bludgeoned his, worthy-though-they-are, ‘Black Issue Films’ to death. Even Summer of Sam, which contained a predominantly non-black cast, still played out like an ‘angry black film’, the only difference being the colour of the cast. I have always believed that he could achieve something else if he really put his mind to it. That day has arrived in the guise of 25th Hour.
Here is a wonderful film that plays out with the subtle depth of a good novel. An unusual amount of time is spent on rounding out each individual character; each thread of the film is explored in substantial detail, so that by the end of the film we are completely emotionally involved with each of the characters. 25th Hour tells the story of one man’s last day before he has to go to prison for seven years, following years of small time drug dealing. And so we follow Edward Norton and his friends, over these last twenty-four hours.
Spike has a wonderful cast in the shape of Edward Norton, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox and the always-excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman. With these actors in place, Spike is comfortable enough to let the camera linger for a very long time over the performances, until the story needs to be propelled forward, at which point the director, as always, proves himself particularly adept at various cinematic tricks (jump-cuts, steadicams etc.). What makes this film stand out more than his recent output is the fact that, although Spike still manages to cram an awful lot of insight into a particular community (in this case, post-9/11 New Yorkers – Spike being the first filmmaker to deal explicitly and honestly with the aftermath of this tragedy), and while he still manages to throw up enormous questions about race, heritage and culture, for once he portrays loveable three-dimensional characters, that, when push comes to shove, represent individuals. Edward’s character does not ‘represent’ the middle-class Irish-American youth: he is, and only is, Montgomery, a character we will end up feeling emotionally connected with.
Spike has finally managed what some have been unsure he would be able to achieve. To bring his political sensibilities, his love of New York, his sheer technical brilliance, to a film that can be read on many levels, while remaining at its core, an excellent, involving, funny and moving story.