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‘25th Hour’ Is Still the Best Movie About 9/11

Spike Lee’s 2002 film wasn’t intended to be about the aftermath of the events of September 11. That’s precisely why, more so than most 9/11-related films, it so effectively captures the mood in the wake of the tragedy.

Buena Vista/Paramount/Universal/Ringer illustration

In 2001, Spike Lee was preparing to make a new crime movie set in New York City when, on the morning of September 11, two planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, a third into the Pentagon, and a fourth, which also had been intended for Washington, D.C., into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was a terrorist attack that killed 2,996 people on that fateful day.

The story Lee was preparing to tell in his new movie had no immediate connection to what happened. It was a little crime drama written by the then-unknown screenwriter David Benioff, who’d adapted the script from his own debut novel, The 25th Hour. The book had unexpectedly stoked the interest of Hollywood types like Tobey Maguire and, eventually, Lee. Like the book, the movie was to tell the story of a heroin dealer named Monty Brogan who was about to serve a seven-year sentence in prison. In the 24 hours before his imprisonment, Monty sees old friends, tries to sew up old wounds, and speculates about his future, or rather his lack thereof. It is essentially a story about New Yorkers: how they think and feel, how they thrive, and who they are. In the wake of 9/11, that part of the story didn’t change, but for one key real-world adjustment: it became a movie about New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11.

Premiering in New York in December 2002, just over a year after the first anniversary of the event, 25th Hour is, in my mind, a masterpiece. It stars Edward Norton as Monty, in one of his best, most fiery performances. And it stars Barry Pepper and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as his childhood friends, Frank and Jacob, respectively, who have their own uncertainties and anxieties to mend. Rosario Dawson plays Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle, who for a time is suspected of being the one who sold Monty out to the DEA. The exceptional Brian Cox, meanwhile, plays his father.

That’s the cast list. The city of New York—from its prep schools to its bars, its Korean groceries to its pickup basketball games—is the real star. And so is the mood. Rarely has a film so accurately approximated the raw nerve of recent history. Critic Mick LaSalle likened it to Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, a movie that was filmed on the streets of Rome in the immediate wake of Nazi occupation. And it’s true: 25th Hour feels like history. The story is a fiction. But the mood the movie evokes right from the start, with a haunting display of the 88 beams of light shot into the sky each September 11 to memorialize the fallen towers, is practically documentary. It’s the movie that comes closest to reflecting my own buried feelings about that day—which is also why the movie is singularly devastating.

25th Hour is my personal benchmark for every movie in what you’d broadly call the category of “9/11 movies,” in part because it’s a movie that understands the way such a vast trauma operates at the micro level. It’s not concerned with the way the event shapes politics, say, or history, but with the way it situates itself, invisible and unspoken, in the minds of everyday people. That, for me, is the story that’s always mattered the most. It’s the kind of story I still think, 16 years later, we haven’t gotten enough of.

A week after the towers fell, author Martin Amis took to The Guardian to claim that “no visionary cinematic genius could hope to recreate the majestic abjection of that double surrender, with the scale of the buildings conferring its own slow motion”—meaning that no art, no fictionalized contrivances, could have the same power, the same stranglehold on our imagination, as the images generated by that day. I object to that phrase: “double surrender.” It’s “surrender,” specifically, that I hate. But he was otherwise onto something. Amis was writing about a sentiment we heard often in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, in peoples’ accounts of the event on TV and in the news: that it was “like a movie.” Amis was also already certain of the violence that would follow. We all were. “Violence must come,” he wrote. “America must have catharsis.”

He was talking about war; he could have been talking about movies. America must have catharsis: this is, on its face, an artistic objective. Sixteen years after what remains the most fatal terrorist attack on U.S. soil, have we gotten it? If anything, movies have taken our capacity to understand the totality of 9/11 for granted. A pair of movies like Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice can openly invoke the terror of that day in the felling of whole city blocks and, in particular, the destruction of a Wayne Enterprises skyscraper. We understand that trauma: we see the images and know what it means. Same goes for a documentary like Man on Wire, with its heist-like account of Philippe Petit’s extraordinary tightrope walk between the two towers in 1974. The movie, with its reliance on the crisp, majestic black-and-white photos taken that day, needn’t announce itself as a memorial to the two towers to feel like one. The images tell that story for us.

The job of a mainstream movie memorializing 9/11, on the other hand, is to invoke—or provoke—a flurry of narratives surrounding that day. We home in on individual heroes. As of last week, there’s a new one called 9/11 that stars Charlie Sheen as one of five New Yorkers trapped in an elevator in the north tower. It’s atrocious—but as a dramatic reenactment of a specific story within the broader event, it’s merely a low point in an otherwise strong trend. We’ve had a handful of major films tackling the event and its aftermath head-on, such as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, about two Port Authority police officers who find themselves trapped in the rubble of a collapsed tower, and Paul Greengrass’s United 93, a detailed, real-time reenactment of United Airlines Flight 93’s passengers tragically but successfully diverting their plane from another attack and crash-landing in Pennsylvania. Both came out in 2006, in time for 9/11’s five-year anniversary, and both are based on true stories, a common lane for films like this.

We had already, before either of these movies, gotten a documentary from Michael Moore on the matter, the Palme d’Or–winning Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), about the Bush administration’s leveraging of that tragedy to enter into war in Afghanistan and later Iraq. Moore’s movie is largely worth remembering as a reminder that films about those wars are also inherently, even if only tangentially, films about 9/11: The event is inextricable from what came after. And movies have often argued as much: from Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah (2007), a crime mystery about the death of an American soldier who’d fought in Iraq, to Dear John (2010), a Nicholas Sparks romance about a soldier who falls in love while on leave but decides to reenlist after 9/11. There’s Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) too, of course, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which remains the definitive, if also the most infuriating, Hollywood account of 21st-century American intelligence and military operations here and abroad. And it’s not merely a matter of films about war: Even the globalism porn of Sex and the City 2, with its awkward tour of the Middle East, feels like a fantasy that only the 21st-century conflicts born of that day in 2001 make possible.

We’re helplessly bound up in the aftermath of 9/11. And yet there somehow remain relatively few good films about what the post-9/11 moment feels like. This, I think, is what makes Lee’s 25th Hour stand out. The movie is not “about” 9/11, but it’s wholly inseparable from it: you can’t avoid thinking about it. Lee won’t let you. When Monty goes on a racist rant, pillorying everyone from Korean grocers to bourgeois black men to Russian mobsters and Muslim cabbies to, most provocatively, police and firefighters, he’s summing up a citywide anger that flows in every direction at once. The scene is similar to the kind of angry vision Lee has explored before, though in this case, the rant is a holdover from Benioff’s original novel. (Disney, which produced the movie through Touchstone Pictures, wanted to cut the scene—just as Benioff’s editors had wanted to trim the moment from his novel—but Lee and Benioff both fought to keep it.) It’s bigger than one person or event—just as Monty’s story, which Lee fashions into a tale of squandered opportunity, is bigger than Monty.

It’s always been remarkable to me that Lee could find a way to embed Benioff’s original tale into the aftermath of 9/11 so seamlessly; the event, hovering just beyond every conversation, just around every corner, is infused into the story’s DNA. There’s a conversation between Frank and Jacob, set in Frank’s apartment, which overlooks the footprints of the fallen towers. It’s a conversation about Monty and how his and their lives will change when he goes to prison. The men express themselves with agitated uncertainty, as if they’ve forgotten how to talk to each other. Lee stages it right in front of a window overlooking the rubble of ground zero. That uncertainty, that agitation, can’t help but feel in conversation with recent history. And thus neither can the rest of the movie.

It’s a dark, desperate, utterly necessary movie. 25th Hour is a model for how to make a movie about recent history, which isn’t to say that other 9/11 movies—be they precise reenactment or fiery political fare—are inherently insufficient. They’re simply the kind of movie we tend, instinctively, to want to make about these atrocities. 25th Hour, meanwhile, wasn’t meant to be a 9/11 movie; it was forced to become one by history, and that circumstance is central to its success. Rather than reckoning with history, outright, it reckons with everyday life in the wake of history. That’s the challenge it poses to its audience—but most especially, to other movies.