In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in June’s double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

As he often does, Spike Lee saw it coming in America in the days after 9/11. It was impossible to categorize or contextualize the specific circus we’d find ourselves watching 20 years later. But like so few American filmmakers, Lee remains acutely aware of our nation’s destructive historical patterns, cultural pathologies and general apathy for positive advancement. Lee sees the wind of change blow. He also smells it.

It’s easy to look at the overt 9/11 imagery in Lee’s 2002 film 25th Hour and simply chalk it up to the real-world circumstances of a near-lifelong New Yorker shooting a film there at that time … or exploiting actual tragedy by folding it into the tale of a drug dealer’s last night of freedom before a seven-year prison stint. It’s also easy to consider its characters’ anger (most rigorously embodied in a “fuck-you” monologue by star Edward Norton) as some sort of superficial commentary on New York resilience or, worse yet, an endorsement of toxic masculinity. The thing is 25th Hour isn’t a love letter to anything, let alone one written with a poison pen. (Consider how that “fuck-you” monologue, delivered to a mirror reflection, turns at the end.) Lee understands how tragedy erects an easy proscenium for performative responses. Tragedy is a guaranteed A. There’s no creativity in it, only inevitability.

The opening credits of 25th Hour unfold over Terence Blanchard’s elegiac score and the Tribute in Light. It’s first regarded here as an attempt to commune with the unknowable hereafter but eventually compromised by aircraft on its skyline perimeter — the everyday ecosystem barely disrupted in the scheme of things. In a bar one character owns, firefighter memorials are wedged in where they fit — between framed Guinness ads, a tribute paid where it fits and because it feels like the right sort of décor, not a genuine feeling. Exchanges take place in luxury apartments overlooking the excavation of Ground Zero. It’s a lightning-rod conversation piece the renter loves discussing; meanwhile, Lee and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto frame this scene to foreground the futility of bandaging a wound that’s impossible to close. (From a craft perspective, a lack of Oscar nominations for Blanchard and Prieto here was baffling. Certainly, Blanchard is the greatest living film composer to not yet win an Academy Award.) 

Similarly, Monty Brogan (Norton) could run rather than report to a prison where perpetual bodily harm is his best-case baseline. Monty could also eat a bullet. Or he could take his chances at Otisville, hoping he lives to become a 38-year-old punked-out ex-con with zero career opportunities and government-issue dentures. Tragedy down any avenue. The obliteration of existence as he knows it in any option. Again: Tragedy isn’t creative. It’s inevitable. Just as America believed it could harmoniously unite after 9/11, Monty thought his privilege could somehow protect him from prosecution. He’s the Irish upstart with a posh apartment, an expensive leather couch and a large, framed Cool Hand Luke poster, after all. But Monty is also a tough guy respected on the streets where he slings drugs, right? Right? He’s not simply serving at the pleasure of those Ukrainian mobsters who know real violence, is he? Is he? Monty looks the part. To be the part? No way. Monty’s fury masks his existential terror, just as post-9/11 niceties veiled America’s collective wish for systems to regroup and reassert, now with more geopolitical-strongman flexing.

At its heart, 25th Hour is a story about image-making individualized, politicized and nationalized only to weave the thinnest threads of unity and connection. It culminates in a heartbreaking moment of hand-to-hand violence that plays out over the audible beauty of a breaking day to underscore the performative emptiness of retribution. 9/11 isn’t window-dressing here. It’s the window into discord and despair Lee clearly sees.

These aren’t bad bones for a film initially inspired by writer David Benioff’s emergency surgery for appendicitis in New York — where he was stuck in the hospital for several days and feeling “so close to the city but not being a part of it.” The 9/11 aspects were not initially part of Benioff’s screenplay (which he adapted from his own novel), but Lee leaned into them in thoughtful, lingering ways. It keeps 25th Hour fresh and vital 20 years on rather than a time capsule showcasing rumbling nightlife in which to get Monty drunk and “make sure he has one good night” or resting its laurels on easy suspense-thriller beats on who gave up Monty to the DEA.

Monty’s oldest friends and longtime girlfriend factor into the last-night-out aspect. Francis (Barry Pepper) is a stockbroker cowboy hiding behind his battered tin shield of moral judgment against Monty; Francis excoriates Monty for making millions on the misery of others while he himself profits off unemployment numbers. Meanwhile, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is now a teacher at the high school where he, Francis and Monty all came up. He’s facing his own moral crucible with a student named Mary (Anna Paquin), whose astute piercing of her peers’ bullshit propels Jacob’s illicit attraction to her that, if acted upon, would be quite illegal.

Mary winds up in the company of Monty, Francis and Jacob, at which point Lee deploys his usual double-dolly shot — that disembodied sensation here embodying dismay, disbelief and distraction. It reaches an apex with a resolution to Jacob and Mary’s story — human heat and sweat sheens everywhere, the slippery and sleek accompaniment of Cymande’s certified banger “Bra,” blacklights exposing all sinful blemishes, DJ scratches soaring around the soundscape as if Jacob’s conscience is clawing its way through his flesh. It’s a reminder that for all of his socially engaging content, Lee remains one of the most kinetic and kaleidoscopic scene-setters there is. Some segments in the club feel primed to soar out of the stratosphere and onto a different planet altogether. (Albeit bleakly, 25th Hour also serves as a reminder of Lee’s comic touches, especially in how he films a bouncer, played by the late Patrice O’Neal, bowdlerizing advice from the film Road House for Monty on how to survive in prison. The perfect pacing of such moments makes 25th Hour feel like one of Lee’s more fleet-footed efforts, too, perhaps bested only by Inside Man.)

Meanwhile, Monty’s much-younger beloved, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), struggles to reconcile Monty’s scattered mind on his final day of freedom. She would rather just take a bath with him and spend a good day together, but his thoughts are elsewhere. Monty is certainly recalling the day he was pinched and the clapbacks he offered during interrogation; how tough he talks! But he’s also enjoying free-floating recollections of the day he met Naturelle and the easier times they shared. But to profess that to Naturelle would incur her own prison sentence — waiting for him instead of moving on. Instead, Monty asks that Naturelle wear her silver dress on their night out, insisting it’s how he wants to remember her (again, a performative deflection of what Monty truly desires, all for the sake of gearing himself up to seem “hard” and survive inside the prison). 

Naturelle is also a natural suspect for who ratted Monty out. People insist to Monty that he should know who did this before he goes away. But what good will that do him? It can only deflect Monty away from recognizing that his choices, not someone else’s, led him here. It’s his mess. He must clean it. It’s a notion verbalized in a scene that reveals who alerted the feds, emphasizes Lee’s larger themes, and facilitates an unexpectedly poignant moment nailed by late athlete / actor Tony Siragusa, heretofore just comic relief as an oafish Ukrainian lackey.

However too late it is to save himself, this is a level of responsibility Monty is willing to assume. The same can’t be said of his father, Jim (the great Brian Cox), indebted to Monty’s misdeeds in a way he can express only with regret, remorse, a thick steak and a lift to the prison. But Jim is willing to bypass the Otisville exit and just keep driving. West, west, west. Stop in Chicago for a Cubs game, then all the way to the desert. The desert is where you go to start over, after all. 

This is at first a comforting notion, then a comprehensive vision of where Monty’s life could go instead — asserting the film’s title as an anteroom of anticipation. But it can never be. It’s a mirage. It’s Jim’s performance to the back row of Monty’s emotions. Most of all, it’s an implicit acknowledgment that systems always recalibrate to some form of suitable status quo. No second act for guys like Monty who challenge it. As Bruce Springsteen sings on “The Fuse” in the closing credits (over Blanchard’s beautiful orchestral arrangement): “Tires on the highway hiss that something’s coming / You can feel the wires in the treetops humming / Devil’s on the horizon line.”

A stunning and sobering eulogy for what was and what will never be, 25th Hour is perhaps the closest Spike Lee will ever come to A Christmas Carol. Only the ghosts here impart no revelatory lesson. They only shake their heads as they wearily welcome more ghosts.