‘25th Hour’: The Best 9/11 Movie Was Always About New York

When Spike Lee got here beneath hearth final month for together with 9/11 conspiracy theorists in his HBO documentary collection “NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½,” historians and others expressed disappointment that Lee had appeared to offer credibility to long-debunked claims. (He subsequently edited them out.) But for these of us who’ve adopted Lee’s profession, and its intersection with that seminal New York occasion of 20 years in the past, the preliminary resolution was particularly baffling — as Lee additionally directed what many think about the quintessential movie about post-9/11 New York City.

“25th Hour” isn’t a “9/11 movie,” at the very least not in the way in which that “United 93” or “World Trade Center” are. In reality, the assaults weren’t a part of the David Benioff screenplay that Lee signed on to direct, nor have been they a part of Benioff’s unique novel (which was revealed in January 2001). But Lee is an intuitive filmmaker, open to improvisation and changes — and, as “NYC Epicenters” reminds us, he’s a documentarian who noticed his metropolis in a second of mourning, melancholy and transition, and needed to seize it.

Most of Hollywood didn’t really feel the identical. In the weeks following the assaults, characteristic movies with terrorism plotlines, together with the Barry Sonnenfeld comedy “Big Trouble” and the Arnold Schwarzenegger automobile “Collateral Damage,” have been delayed and drastically re-edited. Films nonetheless in manufacturing, like “Men in Black II” and “Lilo & Stitch,” have been rewritten to take away echoes of 9/11. Skyline pictures with the World Trade Center have been edited out of the not-yet-released “Kissing Jessica Stein,” “Igby Goes Down,” “People I Know” and “Spider-Man,” and a sequence of that superhero trapping a helicopter in an online between the dual towers — the centerpiece of a preferred teaser trailer — was deleted as effectively.

Most controversially, some filmmakers selected to depart their skyline pictures intact, however to erase the Twin Towers with digital results. And thus the World Trade Center was wiped from “Serendipity,” “Stuart Little 2,” “Mr. Deeds,” and Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander,” which hit screens lower than three weeks after the assaults. The director’s publicist defined on the time that he made the last-minute resolution to take away the towers as a result of the movie was an escapist comedy and seeing the buildings “would defeat that purpose.”

Spike Lee disagreed. “You could not even show an image of the World Trade Center. “I said, we’re not doing that.” With filming on “25th Hour” deliberate for the next winter, Lee set about weaving 9/11 “into the fabric” of the present story, as his star, Edward Norton, defined on the audio commentary: “It was like looking at it through the angle of another story, but the melancholy that the city was full of in that year afterward. I feel like the impact of 9/11 emotionally is all through this movie.”

Spike Lee added a shot of the “Tribute in Light” set up after studying about it. Credit…Touchstone Pictures

“25th Hour” is the story of Monty Brogan (Norton), a white-collar drug vendor whom we meet on the final day earlier than he’s to report for a seven-year incarceration. That evening, he hits the city together with his childhood friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) and his live-in girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), ostensibly for one final blowout, but in addition in an try to come back to phrases with the alternatives — and thus, errors — he’s made in his life.

So the express references to the tragedy are minimal. There is the opening credit score sequence, that includes the “Tribute in Light” artwork set up, by which 88 searchlights mixed to create two beams representing the fallen towers (Lee stated he filmed it the very evening he examine it in The Times); accompanied by Terence Blanchard’s transferring musical rating, these photographs say much more concerning the tragedy than any information footage or expositional dialogue may. Occasionally, ephemera of that autumn — American flags, makeshift memorials, needed posters of Osama bin Laden — pop up within the background.

One scene, lifted nearly verbatim from the novel, finds Monty delivering a prolonged, offended, profanity-laden monologue right into a mirror, meticulously insulting New Yorkers of each conceivable race, faith and sophistication (earlier than touchdown on his household, his pals and eventually himself). Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have been added to the record of his targets.

Most poignantly, Lee relocated a scene between Hoffman and Pepper to an residence overlooking floor zero, and positioned the actors in entrance of a giant window to view staff sifting for human stays. “New York Times says the air’s bad down here,” Hoffman notes; Pepper disparages the paper (“I read The Post”) and insists, “E.P.A. says it’s fine.” (The federal company was later revealed to have misled the general public.)

In one scene, characters look out over staff at floor zero.Credit…Touchstone Pictures

Some of the movie’s preliminary critics discovered these additions to be an intrusion — A.O. Scott deemed them “obtrusive” and “a little jarring.” But because the years have handed, the worth of what Lee was capturing has turn into clear. On the movie’s fifth anniversary, the movie critic Mick LaSalle referred to as it “as much an urban historical document as Rossellini’s ‘Open City,’ filmed in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Rome.”

But Lee didn’t simply seize the way in which New York seemed in these unsure, shellshocked months after 9/11. His movie captured how the town felt, the unusual quiet that fell over the streets, the overwhelming melancholy that embedded itself in our collective DNA. “25th Hour” was not the story of these assaults, nevertheless it was a narrative about one lifestyle coming to an finish, and one other, far much less sure one looming on the horizon.

“We were very careful how we were going to portray Sept. 11 because we know it’s still very painful and that it will always be very painful for those who lost people,” Lee stated upon its launch in December 2002. “But at the same time, we couldn’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend like it never happened.” And that intuition, that insistence on documenting the town we lived in fairly than the town we imagined, is what makes Spike Lee one in all New York’s important filmmakers.

Jason Bailey is the writer of the forthcoming ebook “Fun City Cinema: New York and the Movies That Made It,” a historical past of the town and flicks about it. He can be the host of the “Fun City Cinema” podcast.