A man's last day of freedom becomes Spike's meditation on 9/11.

Ground Zero Hour 

A man's last day of freedom becomes Spike's meditation on 9/11.

Spike Lee's film of David Benioff's 2001 novel The 25th Hour, which the author has adapted, hews closely to the original tale: Montgomery Brogan, a working-class white boy who dreamed of being a New York City firefighter until he fell into a soft pile of easy money made peddling heroin, has a single day of freedom left before he must report to the upstate penitentiary to serve seven years. He will spend his final 24 hours of liberty partying glumly with childhood chums Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an English teacher who craves a decidedly unvirginal student named Mary (Anna Paquin); and Wall Street trader Francis Slaughtery (Barry Pepper), a would-be master of the universe. Monty will say his farewells to his father -- a Staten Island bar owner who would do anything for his kid -- and to his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), whom Monty fell in love with when she was a high-school student. In Monty's final moments of freedom, he now suspects that she turned him in.

Benioff's novel, here retitled simply 25th Hour, remains intact down to its final moments, as momentarily shocking as they are overwhelmingly sad. But the writer and the film's director, who was long ago written off as the wunderkind who no longer could, have expanded one man's story into something far weightier without allowing it to collapse beneath its fresh burden. Monty Brogan, played by Edward Norton as a man accepting of his fate but never quite resigned to it, remains, but 25th Hour, in large part, also tells the story of New York City post-September 11, 2001.

Lee does not flinch from the task; his heart aches for the hometown he loves, and he beckons those of us who observed from a safe distance through the television screen. His intentions become clear before the opening credits finish flashing: The camera, manned by Amores Perros and 8 Mile cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, sweeps across the decimated Manhattan skyline, and our eyes fixate upon the twin beams of light that emanate from where the World Trade Center once stood. The sight -- and the sound of Terence Blanchard's elegant, mournful score -- is overwhelming, especially after a year spent watching cowardly filmmakers digitally erase the towers from their tepid movies.

Lee reminds us constantly that for New Yorkers, the recent past lingers over the city like a noxious cloud. "The New York Times says the air is bad down here," Jacob tells Francis, whose apartment overlooks the illuminated hole in the ground where the WTC once stood. "Fuck The Times," Post-reading Francis says, adding that he won't move away even if "Bin Laden drops another one next door." If there's a flaw here, it's that their conversation can't overcome the activity below; we can't hear the workers, but we're distracted by their buzz of activity nonetheless. Lee and Prieto keep Ground Zero at the center of the screen.

Monty's story is slight, the last day of a dumbfuck's freedom; he's affable as hell, but the pusherman's gonna get what he deserves. Lee knows it, and he uses one small-time hustler to tell his story of one wounded city. The movie resonates precisely because it serves as documentary only pretending to be fiction: It's set in a real place recovering from real pain, which Lee makes tangible. As Monty walks the Manhattan streets, the camera lingers on makeshift memorials to fallen firefighters and WTC workers. The bar owned by Monty's pop (Brian Cox) is even populated by real-life members of FDNY's Rescue 5 unit. They toast old friends, as though life for them has become a perpetual wake. Because it has.

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