neal's first game
snapshot of life at the moment

african-american directors series: 25th hour (spike lee, 2002)

Neal was talking to me about Spike Lee the other day, and one point he made stuck with me. Spike Lee, he said, was a filmmaker of his generation ... in fact, he may be THE filmmaker of Neal's generation. Most of the directors Neal admires emerged in that great period of American film between 1967 and 1975, but Spike is a more recent participant, and Neal likes having someone that came along during his own formative years. I feel the same way about Bruce Springsteen ... I was too young for Elvis and the Beatles, but I wanted someone who could matter to me on that level, and then Bruce came along.

Anyway, Neal thinks 25th Hour is perhaps Spike Lee's best film, and I can't say I agree, but I think I understand why someone might think it was a great movie. Lee will likely never make a perfect film, because he's got too much to say in every movie he makes, and he's unafraid to go after bigness of spirit and emotion, so there's often a messiness in his movies. 25th Hour is less messy than most Lee joints, even though it's dealing with very messy lives ... the film is withdrawn into its post-9/11 moment, and the shrinkage works well. As always in a Spike Lee movie, there are set pieces of undeniable brilliance (the nightclub scene sounds REALLY GREAT in surround sound, BTW), and the film's conclusion offers a quirky version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" that is touching and funny.

The problem lies with the central character, Monty, well-played by Edward Norton. There are hints of Camus' Meursault in Monty, but, as Norton says in a making-of documentary included on the DVD, Monty represents the perils of an unreflective life, and this is unlike Meursault, who spends a lot of time reflecting. Monty, on the other hand, is less a character than a stance: Unreflective Guy. We make very few connections with Monty, whose fate (he is spending his last free day before starting a seven-year prison sentence) is presented in an unfortunately simplistic fashion: Monty knows his good looks will result in gang rape once he enters prison, and that scares him. As a starting point for a character, it's a good one, but that's about all we ever learn about Monty, fear of rape (and, oh yeah, he's nice to dogs). Meursault is a murderer who is also Everyman, but Monty is, in the end, just a drug dealer who got caught, and that isn't enough around which to build a movie.

Another, lesser, problem is with the main female character, played by Rosario Dawson. The character isn't particularly interesting, and Dawson is mostly boring. Spike Lee hasn't always had the best success with his women characters, and 25th Hour doesn't add much to his reputation in that regard.

Still, I can believe Spike Lee is one of the best filmmakers of his generation, at least among American directors. I've seen ten of his movies, myself, and while I don't think 25th Hour is up to his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, or his most ambitious film, Malcolm X, it's an impressive work nonetheless. Seven on a scale of ten.

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