David Benioff and Spike Lee, 2002
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
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.
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