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In a New York state of mind

Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” goes to the core of the Big Apple

Spike Lee’s new film acknowledges the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But the tragedy and its aftermath do not consume “25th Hour,” rather they become useful devices in the director’s agenda – a critique of the way movies con us into identifying with characters, even when those characters are morally corrupt, and the way stereotyping plays into this process.

Lee’s story – a white drug dealer’s (Edward Norton) last night in New York before doing a seven-year prison sentence – is not just about a criminal and his dilemma. Lee’s usual focus, documenting the history of black struggle, wouldn’t let him throw away a whole movie on such drivel.

From the very beginning the critique moves into action. Some critics have taken the film’s opening sequence – a dog surviving a severe beating – as a metaphor for America’s own comeback after Sept. 11. But this flag-waving would undermine Lee’s role as a cynic. The scene is what it is. We immediately identify with Monty – our drug dealer – because it’s his good-heartedness that saves the mutt. The rest of “25th Hour” works hard to secure our sympathy for him – at one point we even want the head of the person who ratted him out. Of course, the trick is we shouldn’t care about Monty; after all, he’s a heroin dealer whose only remorse was not stopping sooner. And does the fact that he’s white have anything to do with our complacency? You’re absolutely right it does.

The film is asking us to pay particular attention to the color and status of its characters, how those attributes are not at all arbitrary but full of meaning, and how all of this affects the way we identify with them. Why are the agents who arrest Monty black? Why is his girlfriend, who we’re not to trust, Puerto Rican? Why did Lee make Monty’s cumbersome friend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) rich and greedy and also Jewish? Lee has crafted a kind of experiment, testing our ability to raise a finger when we’re being manipulated and also to see through stereotypes and recognize how he’s using them. This is a Spike Lee joint indeed.

Lee’s commentary explodes in the middle of “25th Hour” when Monty looks into a restroom mirror and rattles off a seething diatribe on the social makeup of New York. It’s an update of a famous sequence from “Do the Right Thing” (though “25th Hour” is based on a three-year-old book that contains a similar scene). Other critics have quoted the final words of Monty’s indictment, and for good reason. Even though the rest of the film’s didactic critique has little to do with this one sentence, it has a resounding effect. Monty grabs Enron by the throat and utters, “Bush and Cheney knew, they knew.” But as Lee keeps the images of Sept. 11 always looming in the background, those words take on a much larger meaning.

“25th Hour” directed by Spike Lee. Starring Edward Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson. Now showing at area theaters.

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