After a brief prologue, Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002) opens with a series of images of the lights at the site formerly occupied by the World Trade Center.
The lights, and the way they both materially and immaterially intersect with the skyline of New York City, offer the perfect metaphor for Lee's narrative, which tackles the events of 9/11 obliquely, insisting on the absence of the towers as a social fact of post-2001 New York City life but in a film that is not directly "about" the events of that day. In the title image, we see another framing of the lights that, in retrospect, embodies the film's central theme:
It's an evocative image that pulls in two different directions at once. We see the lights "look" up, as if to the heavens in search of forgiveness and redemption. But the light also seems to be coming from the heavens, as if bestowing that very forgiveness upon the subject asking for it. To be sure, 25th Hour is an entirely secular film. The story involves a drug dealer named Monty (Edward Norton) who has been sentenced to seven years in prison. The film narrates his final hours of free life before heading to prison; seamlessly interspersed in the film are flashbacks of the events leading up to Monty's arrest, and the facts of his past that he regrets but can now no longer change.
Besides that opening shot above, the film makes no reference to anything spiritual (or religious), at least until its final montage sequence. This is something of a dream sequence in which Monty's father, James (Brian Cox) presents Monty with the possibility of absconding from his responsibility to report to prison. He suggests to Monty that he flee out to the American West (Monty has never been west of Philadelphia), in hope of a new life. Of the many images we are shown in the sequence, we see:
Because 25th Hour is set so intensely in New York City, the above image, like others in the dream sequence, feels almost as if it had dropped from Mars. But its strangeness offers Monty no escape. For Lee, religion, or any other single institution or answer, offers no respite from the moral questions of 21st century American life. The redemption sought in the title image is of another sort entirely, and something the film does not exactly articulate: it merely frames the need for it, and its possibility. In other words, 25th Hour is one of the few Hollywood films of the decade to grapple with the questions of moral life in American after 9/11, although it does so in a narrative that is ostensibly about other concerns, and without answering any of the questions it poses.
Instead of further standard plot summary, it's best to indicate what 25th Hour is about in visual terms. The low-angle shot of the lights is matched by a quartet of high- and low- angle shots that appear throughout the film. They are not of lights, but of the film's characters looking up or down at another person, or at us (if we may extend the word "character" to include the protagonist's dog). Each of them will have to reflect upon the morality of their actions at some point in the film (or, in the case of the dog, will serve to reflect a human figure's morality). In these shots, they echo the lights reaching for heaven which we have already seen, looking as they are for some kind of redemption:
Each character, despite their various pleas for forgiveness or help, isolates himself from the world. Monty lives in an expensive apartment, paid for by drug dealing. Saving his dog Doyle (seen in the first image above, looking up like the others, asking for a second chance - he is the only figure in the film who unambiguously receives it) is one of the few good acts he has performed. Frank (Barry Pepper, who in this film proves he could have been Christian Bale's understudy on American Psycho) lives in a world of Red Bull, ruthless stock exchanges, and Maxim Magazine. Like Monty, he earns his money through the suffering of others (in the sequence which introduces the character, he cheers the rise in unemployment numbers). The most thoughtful and reflective character in the film is the teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but he carries his own sense of guilt, in part because of his privileged upbringing, and his lust for a flirtatious student (Anna Paquin).
Although the film takes place after the turn of the century, there is an almost pre-millennial tension at work throughout. Monty is on a ticking clock, a short fuse (the choice of the particular Springsteen song used over the end credits is the most perfect of any closing song in American cinema during the last ten years). The film makes us feel it: the flashbacks are less conventional than most, absent of the clear markers of temporal transition, thus functioning more as sense memories seamlessly located in a present that is slipping away. During at least three junctures in the film, too, Lee distends narrative time, filmically repeating, in a quick cut, an action that occurs in the story only once (Jacob hugging Monty and Monty falling into his girlfriend's arms after being beaten up by Frank near the end of the film; there is at least one other example of this in the film that escapes my memory at the moment):
In each case, time is expanded when Monty falls into the arms of another character; it is almost as if just a few more seconds of embrace would be enough for his salvation. During at least one point in the film, too, our attention is held in a relatively long take unusual in the American narrative cinema. The absence of the towers are explicitly referred during a conversation between Frank and Jacob that lasts for almost five minutes of screen time, and is punctuated by Terry Blanchard's affecting score:
Here the film forces the audience to reckon with the social (and visual) fact of 9/11 in a mainstream narrative film simply by keeping Ground Zero on the screen for what for some viewers may be an uncomfortably long time. Lee, in this conversation between two characters, is mixing up the public and the private, prompting us to query the compartments of our own moral lives.
It is almost as if these subtle distensions and expansions of narrative time were attempting to increase the amount of time Monty has left in the free world, to give him (and his friends) more time to grapple with the moral implications of their behavior. Of course, the manipulation of film time gives more time to the spectator as well, who is prompted to come to terms with the American world posited by the narrative of the film.
I do not think 25th Hour is an allegory about 9/11. Instead, 9/11's aftermath is a material fact of life in its New York City, a scar that serves to bring to the fore the hitherto repressed moral dimension of daily American action, behavior, and speech. (The film, perhaps not surprising for Lee, tackles racism and prejudice, but only as part of its tapestry, and not its central focus). At the end of the film, Norton's father, speaking in a strange liminal zone between reality and dream as Norton nods off in the car taking him to prison, distends the narrative one final time. But despite the seductiveness of the father's dream-narrative, which promises an escape from the consequences of Monty's behavior, Lee (and his character) don't budge. This is an unflinching film, and Monty, like much of the humanity around him, is called upon to serve his time.