25th Hour (2002)

For years, Peter Weir's FEARLESS, I've cited as the film that has made me cry the hardest at the very end. Tears are hard to measure, but if my recent rewatch is any indication, it's safe to say that Spike Lee's 25TH HOUR now holds that honor. As sad as both films are, they manage to instill so many emotions in me that are hard to quantify and decipher. For me, the best films in my lifetime are not just great films, but they feel like looking back at old photos. There's a photo in 25TH HOUR given by his father to his son, Monty, as it will be the only item he is allowed to take with him to prison. As much as I love everything in this movie, and I mean every single frame, there's something magical that takes place when I experience this moment between father and son. And it's almost matched to the sentiment shared between three close friends, girlfriend and boyfriend, pet and rescuer. Before that car even rolls down the bridge at the beginning, I experience what Monty experiences in the first sequence, empathy for another living thing. Looking past your own shit for a minute, and doing some good. Listen to the sounds over the Touchstone logo. You've been Doyle, I've been Doyle, this whole country has been Doyle the dog. Hell, maybe it still is or was, or always will be wounded. To me 25TH HOUR is pure emotion throughout, imperfections and all. And it may not be that for everyone which is absolutely understandable. We experience art in different ways, but for me 25TH HOUR remains one of the more transcendent experiences of my life.

When people used to complain or express discontent, I used to want to say "Fuck you. Try dealing with losing the person in your life that you were closest to and see how you feel every day." Or "Fuck you. Have you sat in a hospital bed where doctors told you that you could die any day and then witness the father's reaction to the possibility that his son could die." Even thinking back to how I used to think that way, which is the opposite of empathy, it pains me to even put those thoughts down. Because I have no right to put my own pain or trauma above yours or anyone else's. It's selfish, callous, and limiting to the human experience to immediately try to say that "Well, my pain is worse. Fuck you." Again, inhumanity speaking for me in small doses especially after my father died. I drew the line back in the spring of 2002 when I saw a couple of guys taunting a Islamic schoolgirl in my neighborhood, spouting hate speech at her while she was crying and walking home. I wanted to reach out to her, but her parents came to the rescue fairly quickly. I realized that even if I tried to help, there's no way I can know her pain at that moment. Same goes for racial profiling or sexual discrimination. As much as I care about people, I have not experienced their plight. I will listen and attempt to connect in certain situations, but it's a lie to say "I know how you feel." Of course, I was angry about 9/11, but misdirected rage at a young child who had nothing to do with the tragedy that took place is a reprehensible act. I remember this because I realized I could never sink to the level those assholes did even though I've had "mirror moments" like Monty has had. Watching 25TH HOUR is reminding me of how human beings, including myself, can lose their humanity in the face of grief and tragedy but can find it again through helping others rather than driving past. My dad died one month after 9/11. It makes complete sense that 25TH HOUR for me, is not only about the relationships between these fully realized characters brought to life by an incredible ensemble, but it's about learning to accept how grief made me "ugly."

I remember watching the towers fall with my dad, also knowing that he could die any day. It is still hard to put into words what it felt like to see an act of terrorism live in our living room. But there we were, watching people die in front of our eyes. How could I make fear and uncertainty all about me and losing my dad, when families were losing thousands and a war might break out. Those families didn't have a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones, but I was watching TV with my dad and then a couple weeks later watching three of my favorite movies with him so I could hear his beautiful laugh again and store it into memory. About a year later, I was sitting in a theater next to a row full of Chicago film critics watching 25TH HOUR, standing up and applauding in the middle of a movie while others around me looked shocked that I couldn't contain myself during the mirror sequence. I was celebrating Spike Lee's beautiful go-for-broke nature by telling this story and surrounding it with grief, trauma, and the fact that so many people were full of misguided rage. How could Lee himself include a line of dialogue like "Slavery ended. Move the fuck on." Spike Lee has made a couple of masterpieces, without question, particularly about another lack of empathy -- racism. But 25TH HOUR is a movie that moves me to where it's hard to contain myself and that's not to dismiss his other work as lesser. Is it because of the overwhelming empathy I feel for a drug dealer who really fucked up his life? That's part of it, but it's something deeper. Something that goes beyond words or imagery.

It's realizing the kind of love I shared with my father is still here, despite his physical presence being taken away from me way too young. The moment where Monty's father comes to take his son away, and calls him "Buddy," is probably the most I've cried at any movie since FEARLESS (another film with PTSD in its backpocket). To this day, grief is truly hard to fathom or shake but I think I experience tears of sorrow and joy simultaneously watching 25TH HOUR -- sorrow from the tragedy that's taken place between characters in the film, sorrow from the New York collective on a macro-level, joy that a movie can do this to me. Lots of people won't have that reaction, or even consider a lot of what follows as he's being driven away by his father, as a bit manipulative or maudlin. Somewhere there's a critic inside me that wants to say that tracking shot of all the New Yorkers looking at a bruised Monty is really forced, complete with the score being raised, but the critic is asleep at the wheel as all emotion takes control. I think of how everybody must feel when facing tragedy or loss, because I went through it, then an entire nation went through it, and out comes this work of art by a truly gifted filmmaker who had the courage to not shy away from the rage, the shock, the devastation that might still be there buried somewhere in our collective consciousness. It's almost like 25TH HOUR is smelling salts, waking me up to feelings that I'm strangely grateful for. It is saying to me, "Loss of that magnitude is hard to comprehend, but we will still survive through the worst of it." I was certain that I was going to die in the hospital and then I was certain I wouldn't be able to survive the loss of my favorite human being on the planet. He comes back to life in the final act of a movie, or at least his humanity does in the form of this "movie father" that tries to convey that "This life came so close to never happening."

As much as I'm moved by so many of Spike Lee movies, there's no doubt that this one because of its subject matter, timing, and personal catharsis (or maybe even for a lot of people -- a collective catharsis) is one of the great masterpieces of my lifetime. It showcases how vulnerable we are but that's essential to being alive -- embrace that vulnerability because it exists in us -- whether it's a hardened criminal or a money-driven stock broker (the choice to cut out all sound except birds flapping in the wind during Jacob's scream-crying also haunts me). Somehow we've all been Doyle -- a broken animal, with our story told inside broken cities, and we know broken men and women who deal with little traumas and tragedies each and every day. Just turn on the news. 25TH HOUR reminds me that if someone is hurt on the side of the road, don't make it about yourself and the rescue, make it about helping the wounded for they need you to look beyond their wounds and see a living, breathing creature deserving of unconditional love. Never say "Fuck you" in an act of blind hatred and inhumanity. You'll realize that by saying "fuck you," or "who cares," you're only hurting yourself and the potential for true empathy. 25TH HOUR, I thank you for existing when I lost my father and then this country lost countless lives. Somehow the courage of everyone involved from novelist David Benioff to one of our very best directors Spike Lee, goes to show there's hope in making art vital in ways that can change lives or at least remind us that "This life came so close to never happening." I'm so ecstatic this film happened and that a director like Lee can make movies like this.  A+

James Laczkowski