Feature by: Jack Foley
CONTROVERSY has never been something that director, Spike Lee,
or actor, Edward Norton, has ever shyed away from, so it seems
only natural, therefore, that a collaboration between the two
provides plenty to talk about.
25th Hour is worth debating for two reasons - primarily, for
its take on New York, post September 11, and, secondly, for the
way in which it sets up its central character, drug dealer, Monty
Brogan (Norton), as a likeable hero.
But speaking at a recent press conference at London's Dorchester
Hotel, both the star of Fight Club and the director of Do The
Right Thing, remained unapologetic for tackling such issues head
on - and their views make for riveting reading.
Norton, in particular, was extremely eloquent in explaining why
it would have been remiss to ignore the events of 9/11, particularly
given the nature of the movie, while he compares his character
- that of a drug dealer facing up to his final day on the street
before a seven year prison stretch - to the likes of Othello,
in terms of the tragedy which unfolds.
"The thing about the September 11 thing is that some
people have come up and suggested that there is an inherently
political context to treating those events, and I disagree; as
I think that, with the exception of Barry [Pepper] and Brian Cox,
most of the people who worked on this film live in New York...
"Of course, there is a political context to that event,
but there's also an emotional context that has nothing to do with
politics. It's something that happened and it's part of the fabric
of living in that city now.
"I think if I had felt, at any time in the conversation
about what we were doing, that we were losing the focus from the
story of these human beings, and the individual focus of their
sort of moral crisis, and digressing into a sort of political
comment on those events, I would have been very uncomfortable
with it. Not that you can't make a political comment on those
events, but that's not what this story was about.
"But I always thought that what Spike was suggesting
was not only appropriate, it was essential. That same summer we
made the film, for instance, they were shooting Maid In Manhattan,
so you're not going to point the cameras at Ground Zero if you're
making Maid In Manhattan, but we were making a film about loss,
and the consequences of choices, and of taking things for granted,
and to not allow that new emotional reality into the background
just seemed like kind of an insane denial, to pretend that it
"I think you can address an emotional reality without
it being a political commentary and watching the film, when Spike
first showed it to me, I never felt that there was a political
"I always felt it was being honest about a new emotional
reality of living in that city."
It is a point with which Spike Lee concurs, having seen, first-hand,
the effects that the events of September 11 had on New York.
"What happened on September 11 'really traumatised Americans,"
he explains, "and we're still feeling the effects, because
we are living in a much different world now, where the threat
of terrorism is an everyday occurrence... and so, we wanted to
reflect this different world in the film."
Yet both remain confident that world events have not taken over
in the film, with the strong emotional pull of the characters
still very much to the fore.
Indeed, Norton maintains that the film works so well because
it is not afraid to examine the ways in which people fly into
moral grey zones - citing his own character's lost potential as
a prime example, or the moral dilemmas which beset many of the
secondary characters; from Philip Seymour Hoffman's honest teacher,
struggling to come to terms with his feelings for a student; to
Brian Cox's father, still desperate to make amends for the way
in which he feels he has failed his son.
When asked whether he had to think twice about taking on the
role of a drug dealer, Norton merely states: "It's not
my instinct to sort of judge a character; I try to judge the piece.
"So, does the story as a whole make a statement that
I could get behind? In this case, I think that there was never
any doubt, in our minds, that Monty was going down for what he
"And in that sense, to me, it was a very strong and unequivocal
statement about the consequences of not examining the morality
of what you're doing.
"I think Monty definitely expresses regret on a number
of occasions in the film. He definitely, ultimately, takes responsibility,
whether or not he specifically expresses regret for what he was
doing to other people.
"To me, though, I'm not looking to make him a thoroughly
moral character. I mean, Othello is a likeable character, if you
loathed him, then you wouldn't feel terrible when he strangles
Desdimona; it's like if tragedy is going to function, you have
to be drawn into a human identification with the main character,
because it makes the impact of his fall meaningful.
"It allows a message to be delivered through it. And
I think David Benioff pulled a very neat trick, in a way a very
conscious dramatic trick, because the story doesn't start with
a couple of kids buying these drugs off Monty, it starts by showing
this guy saving a broken down dog.
"And in that I think David is pulling you into a relationship
with this character that is complicated, that is going to put
you in a very difficult position, when you realise that he is
going down, and that you're going to feel torn."
Norton adds: "I think the film examines the way that
people fly into moral grey zones.
"Monty has already done it and you get sort of an implication
from the father and from Frank [Pepper] that Monty sort of moved
through baby steps, to sort of getting pot for a few friends in
High School, to being a full-on heroin dealer, with a couple of
kilos in his sofa.
"But he slid into that zone and he's not examined it,
because he's been coasting.
"But the film also sticks other people into the midst
of that. Frank is in a world in which the ethics are very relative,
and Jacob, who's clearly a good person, is seen rationalising
himself into a series of steps from knowing that it is wrong,
which is what he is thinking and feeling, into the point where
he thinks he can kiss this 17-year-old in the bathroom.
"He's not a bad person, but you literally watch him,
during the course of the film, slide into that moral grey zone.
"To me, what was compelling about it when I read it,
was that, in a way, it was almost like The Deer Hunter, in that
it was this depiction of a group of people in a moral crisis;
they're all questioning the moral ground they're standing on.
"Frank is feeling guilt, Jacob feels confusion and guilt
over what he's feeling for this student, Monty's Dad feels guilt...
everybody's wrestling with the morality of the choices that they've
25th Hour opens on April 25 and IndieLondon urges you to see