Fifteen months after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, New York City was reborn in glorious fashion on celluloid.
It took a pair of feature films from two of the city’s most influential filmmakers to do it. The first, Queens native Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” framed a father-son revenge saga around immigrant life in Civil War-era New York and the 1863 draft riots. The second, Brooklyn resident Spike Lee’s “25th Hour,” followed a convicted drug dealer as he navigates post-9/11 New York City before serving a seven-year prison sentence.
Set 140 years apart, the films coalesced remarkably in their portrayals of the turbulent divisions shared between the city’s past and present.
When “Gangs of New York” opened in the December of 2002, Scorsese’s violent dramatization of mid-19th century ethnic tensions in New York’s Five Points district not only captured the operatic allure of a bygone era, but also conveyed a veteran filmmaker’s resolute manifesto of hope for a city constantly regenerating itself amid the tumultuous ebb and flow of history.
“My father told me we was all born of blood and tribulations,” muses Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the closing moments of the film, “And so then too, was our great city.” As he vanishes from the screen, we see New York blossom in the background from an imaginary vantage point on the shores of the Hudson River. Gray trails of industrial waste billowing out of smokestacks transform into skyscrapers; the Brooklyn Bridge rises out of the water; and finally, moments before the fade to black, the World Trade Center towers emerge, proud pinnacles of a century of progress.
We know from anecdotes that “Gangs” spent decades in gestation, and that Scorsese had always wanted to make a historical epic in the tradition of Italian masters like Luchino Visconti. But his vision of pre-modern America has more in common with D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” in its depiction of human conflict transpiring along the lines of working-class ideology and identity. There is something indelible about Scorsese’s decision to end the film with an image of the New York skyline with the World Trade Center towers intact. As viewers, we are reminded that the city’s transformation from industrial upstart to cultural behemoth would mean little without the most recognizable symbol of its global prominence.
Released on the same day as “Gangs of New York,” Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” picks up where “Gangs” left off, capturing a city and its inhabitants mired in a post-9/11 purgatory. This concept manifests itself in the film’s opening credits sequence, which features shots of the twin beams where the World Trade Center once stood, illuminating the New York City skyline like specters of modern history.
In the years following his seminal “Do the Right Thing” (1989), Lee had carved a niche for himself in the city’s cultural landscape, and “25th Hour” ranks among his finest efforts. The film brims with physical and psychological reminders of the 9/11 tragedy. Midway through the film, we see protagonist Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) lock himself up in a bathroom stall and embark on a schizophrenic diatribe against the socioeconomic and ethnic makeup of New York City.
“Let an earthquake crumble it, let the fires rage, let it burn to fucking ash and then let the waters rise and submerge this whole rat-infested place,” we hear Norton’s character yell, unable to reconcile what he perceives as America’s existential malady with his own regret over having lived a wasted life. Meanwhile, Lee orchestrates a montage of faces, buildings and found footage over a mournful jazz riff, creating a kaleidoscope of post-9/11 America. By capturing one man’s frustration over the loss of dignity in a mercurial new world, Lee reveals a fractured microcosm: beautiful, broken, desperately alive.
Frame by frame, New York City’s cinematic sons debunked the myths of America’s march into modernity in favor of harsher, heartbreaking realities. In their own ways, “Gangs of New York” and “25th Hour” retain their power as remarkable anthropological documents, complementing each other as they recreate the destruction and rebirth of America within the framework of the urban identity.
Fifteen months after witnessing the city’s greatest tragedy, New York’s eight million residents saw themselves reflected on the screen. To experience Scorsese and Lee’s respective contributions to the American film canon is to gaze anew into the deepest recesses of 21st century America itself, through the human eyes of a city at once divided by perpetual conflict and united in an eternal celebration of resilience, reconstruction and redemption.
David Liu is the arts & entertainment editor.