Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) offers a fine example of a film bringing a material context to the screen through its visuals. The film follows New York City drug dealer Monty Brogan the day before turning himself in for a seven-year prison sentence. He spends the day reflecting on how he’s arrived at this place in his life, walking through his old neighborhood and school, visiting with his father, spending quiet moments with his girlfriend, and eventually joining his closest friends for an evening out. Before heading out to meet Monty, the dealer’s two best childhood friends—Jacob and Frank—meet at Frank’s Manhattan apartment for a beverage. The two eventually move to the window, the camera moving in to capture the two men and the chilling view of Ground Zero in the blue light below.
The shot, which lasts for more than five minutes—an eternity for an American movie featuring major stars—stands as one of the visual centerpieces of the film. As the camera tracks in to capture the men in a medium shot, they fall out of focus while they (and we) look at the massive cleanup effort ten or twenty stories below. After a few comments related to the sight before them, the men come back into focus for a conversation about the night ahead with their friend. They recognize the enormity of the moment, offering little more than pat answers to the tragedy that Monty will experience by going to prison. Frank goes so far as to state his belief that Monty will never return from this experience—once he goes to prison, their friend will be gone forever. As their conversation ends in frustration, sadness, and confusion, the camera pushes in toward the window and points down, bringing ground zero back into focus. Lee finally cuts away from this extended shot, with a series of eight four to five second close-ups of ruins and workers on the ground zero site.
The visual element of this scene dominates. And that’s saying something with the presence of sharp writing from David Benioff, effective music from Terrence Blanchard, and keen performances from two great actors, Barry Pepper and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But think back for a moment and place this scene in context. The United States and New York City in particular had experienced devastating tragedy on 9/11. This film was shot a year later and released in December 2002. For viewers, this scene marked the first time they had seen ground zero on film. In some movies of that period, the towers were removed or obscured. Lee chose instead to use the wreckage, showing us New York in its current state, looking at the effects of evil straight on.
What a poignant use of this shot, then, as a man’s life as he and his friends know it is about to end. The scenario has already been set up in the film, so as the camera pulls forward to that window and ground zero comes into focus that first time—bathed in a depressed blue light—we could mute the film at that point and still know exactly what was going on. In this scene we see the destruction that Monty has wrought in his life and to a lesser degree, the lives of his friends and family. This is film in its purest form, showing the viewer a tragedy that words cannot adequately describe.