25th Hour
David Benioff and Spike Lee, 2002

#1, 2002 Skandies

Well then. Even though this one landed first place in the '02 Skandies, I wasn't planning to watch it again since I'd already written it up. But I saw that I'd given it a 5, and thought that maybe that might be a little high, so I figured I'd give it another look and silently downgrade it to a 4 if so warranted. But, uh, I won't be doing that. This is an excellent movie.

The first time around I was wowed by the narrative pyrotechnics at the end, and they still worked for me this time for a different reason (which I'll get to in a moment), but I was also very impressed by just how solid the story is all the way through. Like Eyes Wide Shut, there are very few linking passages; almost every scene is given space to breathe, to function as a short film in its own right. Take the scene that introduces Frank. All it really needs to do is establish his character, which it does in about fifteen seconds: Wall Street, greased hair, Red Bull, asshole remarks. But Benioff and Lee allot the scene over four minutes, giving the viewer a mini-story instead of just tossing out a few signifiers and hurtling on to the next bit. Each scene has intrinsic value in addition to its contribution to the greater narrative. And yet it never becomes episodic, never just a matter of one damn thing after another (the way that Spirited Away felt to me at times). So thumbs up for structure.

I also really liked the interplay between the very specific story of Monty's last night before going to jail and the highly charged atmosphere of New York City, 2002. I kind of dismissed it before, partly because I didn't see any thematic connection (though I see one now, which I'll get to in a moment), but partly because I didn't really have enough distance from it the first time I saw the movie. But yeah — I think the movie does great work in capturing what now seems to me like a geographical and chronological landmark. It occurs to me that it's really something that when my future kids have to interview their parents for fifth grade social studies about living through a historic event, I'll be able to tell them, yeah, I missed postwar Berlin, 1968 Paris, Woodstock... but I lived in New York City on 9/11, and was walking around those streets with shrines to firemen on every corner and plastic made-in-China flags on every car.

All right, let's talk about theme and the ending. Spoilers ahoy. The first time I saw 25th Hour I didn't really see any connection among the various storylines — what does the Anna Paquin subplot have to do with anything, for instance? It now seems to me that what unites the various threads of the movie is unsustainable risk. Monty's friends are pissed at him for not getting out of the drug trade while he still could, for trying to press his luck for just a few more months, score just a few more bricks of cash... but how good are they at taking their own advice? Jacob, after resisting Anna Paquin for several scenes, finally decides to take a chance — and, assuming he winds up keeping his job, still has to live with the memory of that look on her face. And then there's the scene I mentioned above, in which Frank bets his entire $100 million allotment on an unlikely unemployment number, and it actually works out... that time. But in seven years his investment bank won't exist anymore, because there won't be any investment banks, because the entire financial sector is made of reckless, greed-fueled gamblers like him. You can say that this is an anachronistic reading because there was no way of knowing at the time that the economy would collapse — but of course there was! There's a reason that "Nobody Could Have Predicted" is a running joke on the blogs. Economic disaster, ecological disaster, geopolitical disaster: all predicted. Frank says Monty deserves what he got, but Frank and Monty are basically the same guy. They just picked different casinos.

Then we have the ending, the "25th hour" of the title: Monty's dad, driving him to prison, raises the possibility of an alternative plan... and then they're driving west, into a dusty no-name town where Monty can get a job as a bartender, paid in cash, no questions asked... where he'll never see anyone from his old life ever again, except for his loyal girlfriend, who after a couple of years shows up at the Greyhound station. They have children, and their children have children, and as he's old and gray, Monty gathers his family and tells them that he'd once been arrested, that he was on the way to prison for seven years which he was unlikely to survive, but then his dad came up with a plan. "And then you'll ask them if they know how lucky they are to be there. It all came so close to never happening. This life came so close to never happening."

Cut back to the car, heading to prison. Because Dad's plan is just wishful thinking. There are only 24 hours in a day, and Monty is beyond the event horizon now. The near-miss was actually a hit.

I mentioned in a recent minutiae column that I didn't agree with the meme that the 2008 election was the most important one of my lifetime. 2008 was too late. It was the 25th hour. Like Monty, we're fucked. And so my reading of the ending is this:

There was a point when we could have taken a different road. A road to a land where, when the planes hit the World Trade Center, we didn't use it as a pretext to launch an unrelated war of choice, but built on the goodwill of the world. A land where we hadn't taken down the solar panels on the roof of the White House, but instead had moved toward sustainable energy sources and away from the fossil fuels that tempted us to meddle in the Middle East and piss the locals off in the first place. One where we didn't hand out hundreds of billions to the super-rich, didn't pour hundreds of billions more into bringing misery and death to millions of innocents, but instead invested the money in schools, in trains, in levees, and kept enough around to stave off the inevitable economic downturn — one rendered much less severe by clamping down on Wall Street's suicidal greed in the first place. Where we'd look back on some very close elections and say, wow, imagine what would have happened if those guys had gotten in. This all came so close to never happening.

But, 25th Hour forces us to realize, we're past the point where we could have taken that road. That future is never going to happen. At best, our destiny is seven years in, as the mob boss says, a bad place to be.

2002 plus 7 is 2009.

Return to the Calendar page!