When Spike Lee got here beneath hearth final month for together with 9/11 conspiracy theorists in his HBO documentary sequence “NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½,” historians and others expressed disappointment that Lee had appeared to offer credibility to long-debunked claims. (He subsequently edited them out.) However for these of us who’ve adopted Lee’s profession, and its intersection with that seminal New York occasion of 20 years in the past, the preliminary resolution was particularly baffling — as Lee additionally directed what many contemplate the quintessential movie about post-9/11 New York Metropolis.

“twenty fifth Hour” just isn’t a “9/11 film,” a minimum of not in the best way that “United 93” or “World Commerce Middle” are. In truth, the assaults weren’t a part of the David Benioff screenplay that Lee signed on to direct, nor have been they a part of Benioff’s authentic novel (which was printed in January 2001). However Lee is an intuitive filmmaker, open to improvisation and changes — and, as “NYC Epicenters” reminds us, he’s a documentarian who noticed his metropolis in a second of mourning, melancholy and transition, and needed to seize it.

Most of Hollywood didn’t really feel the identical. Within the weeks following the assaults, characteristic movies with terrorism plotlines, together with the Barry Sonnenfeld comedy “Large Bother” and the Arnold Schwarzenegger car “Collateral Harm,” have been delayed and drastically re-edited. Movies nonetheless in manufacturing, like “Males in Black II” and “Lilo & Sew,” have been rewritten to take away echoes of 9/11. Skyline pictures with the World Commerce Middle have been edited out of the not-yet-released “Kissing Jessica Stein,” “Igby Goes Down,” “Individuals I Know” and “Spider-Man,” and a sequence of that superhero trapping a helicopter in an online between the dual towers — the centerpiece of a preferred teaser trailer — was deleted as effectively.

Most controversially, some filmmakers selected to depart their skyline pictures intact, however to erase the Twin Towers with digital results. And thus the World Commerce Middle was wiped from “Serendipity,” “Stuart Little 2,” “Mr. Deeds,” and Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander,” which hit screens lower than three weeks after the assaults. The director’s publicist defined on the time that he made the last-minute resolution to take away the towers as a result of the movie was an escapist comedy and seeing the buildings “would defeat that objective.”

Spike Lee disagreed. “You would not even present an picture of the World Commerce Middle. I mentioned, we’re not doing that.” With filming on “twenty fifth Hour” deliberate for the next winter, Lee set about weaving 9/11 “into the material” of the present story, as his star, Edward Norton, defined on the audio commentary: “It was like it by the angle of one other story, however the melancholy that town was filled with in that 12 months afterward. I really feel just like the influence of 9/11 emotionally is all by this film.”

“twenty fifth Hour” is the story of Monty Brogan (Norton), a white-collar drug vendor whom we meet on the final day earlier than he’s to report for a seven-year incarceration. That evening, he hits the city together with his childhood buddies (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) and his live-in girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), ostensibly for one final blowout, but additionally in an try to return to phrases with the alternatives — and thus, errors — he’s made in his life.

So the express references to the tragedy are minimal. There may be the opening credit score sequence, that includes the “Tribute in Gentle” artwork set up, during which 88 searchlights mixed to create two beams representing the fallen towers (Lee mentioned he filmed it the very evening he examine it in The Occasions); accompanied by Terence Blanchard’s transferring musical rating, these photos say way more concerning the tragedy than any information footage or expositional dialogue might. Sometimes, ephemera of that autumn — American flags, makeshift memorials, needed posters of Osama bin Laden — pop up within the background.

One scene, lifted nearly verbatim from the novel, finds Monty delivering a prolonged, indignant, profanity-laden monologue right into a mirror, meticulously insulting New Yorkers of each conceivable race, faith and sophistication (earlier than touchdown on his household, his mates and at last himself). Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have been added to the listing of his targets.

Most poignantly, Lee relocated a scene between Hoffman and Pepper to an residence overlooking floor zero, and positioned the actors in entrance of a giant window to view staff sifting for human stays. “New York Occasions says the air’s unhealthy down right here,” Hoffman notes; Pepper disparages the paper (“I learn The Publish”) and insists, “E.P.A. says it’s effective.” (The federal company was later revealed to have misled the general public.)

A number of the movie’s preliminary critics discovered these additions to be an intrusion — A.O. Scott deemed them “obtrusive” and “a bit jarring.” However because the years have handed, the worth of what Lee was capturing has grow to be clear. On the movie’s fifth anniversary, the movie critic Mick LaSalle known as it “as a lot an city historic doc as Rossellini’s ‘Open Metropolis,’ filmed within the quick aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Rome.”

However Lee didn’t simply seize the best way New York regarded in these unsure, shellshocked months after 9/11. His movie captured how town felt, the unusual quiet that fell over the streets, the overwhelming melancholy that embedded itself in our collective DNA. “twenty fifth Hour” was not the story of these assaults, however it was a narrative about one lifestyle coming to an finish, and one other, far much less sure one looming on the horizon.

“We have been very cautious how we have been going to painting Sept. 11 as a result of we all know it’s nonetheless very painful and that it’s going to at all times be very painful for many who misplaced folks,” Lee mentioned upon its launch in December 2002. “However on the similar time, we couldn’t stick our heads within the sand and faux prefer it by no means occurred.” And that intuition, that insistence on documenting town we lived in quite than town we imagined, is what makes Spike Lee one in all New York’s important filmmakers.

Jason Bailey is the creator of the forthcoming e-book “Enjoyable Metropolis Cinema: New York and the Motion pictures That Made It,” a historical past of town and films about it. He’s additionally the host of the “Enjoyable Metropolis Cinema” podcast.