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‘Armageddon Time’ review: A personal fable about Reagan-era bigotry

By November 14, 2022No Comments7 min read
You can listen to the following review of Armageddon Time using the player above.

Directed by James Gray and set during his childhood, Armageddon Time offers a probing critique of 1980s New York.

Over the course of his career, James Gray has searched for meaning from the recesses of the unknown. With The Immigrant, the filmmaker painted a lush, sprawling 1920s melodrama that depicted the beauty and terror of being caught between two lands and cultures, adapting and sacrificing parts of yourself in the interest of self-preservation. Gray’s follow-up, The Lost City of Z, followed the wondrous pursuits of an explorer who loses himself in the madness of territory believed unknown, sacrificing one’s home to find a place that may not exist beyond the collective imagination. And with Ad Astra, perhaps his most ambitious project to date, Gray followed a man who would travel unparalleled lengths of time and deep space in order to reconnect with the person who gave him life, the father who has remained as distant as the heavens and stars above. 

As Gray continues to traverse this rolodex of genres, stories, and styles, the established New York-based writer/director has always stayed homebound, at least spiritually, in his conviction to explore how heritage, family, privilege (or lack thereof), and one’s need to make their mark in an undefined world — namely, the pursuit of personal, financial, creative, or professional identity and freedom — shapes a career that’s both highly audacious and undeniably singular. In that respect, it’s only fitting that with Gray’s latest film, Armageddon Time, the storyteller has chosen not to search into worlds unexplored, but rather a time and place that is as hauntingly alien as it is undeniably familiar. His childhood. 

At a time when it seems like every filmmaker from Alfonso Cuaron to Kenneth Branagh to Steven Spielberg has taken an opportunity to dip their toes into cinematic autofiction and explore their childhoods through film, Gray’s Armaggedon Time is a tender, unwavering, and emotionally investigative dive into 1980s conservatism, class consciousness, and cultural unrest. Seen through the curious eyes of Paul Graff (an astounding Banks Repeta), a 12-year-old Jewish-American boy with lofty artistic ambitions who, nevertheless, struggles to find his way. Gray is willing to explore his own past, not with warped, wistful nostalgia, but with a fractured yet loving memory buried deep inside his subconsciousness, refusing to realize itself in full until late in life, when the damage is done and the reflection refuses to subside.

armageddon time
Focus Features

“You’re not to associate with him again.”

It’s a movie that, in some ways, counteracts this growing trend of self-aggrandizing storytelling, allowing us to see a snapshot from the filmmaker’s life that isn’t entirely factual but also unbridled by the desperate need to paint oneself as always noble and true. The beauty and frustration of its depiction come in the central friendship between two boys — one Black, one Jewish — who foster a gentle connection, only to fall victim to a society that doesn’t allow them to prosper under the same light. Though not always portrayed on the most solid of thematic grounds, this understated and pained introspection feels rooted in an honest aching that reveals some truths of this time period and, frankly, the now.

As for the plot itself, it’s 1980s Queens. Paul Graff, a boy who dreams of a world he doesn’t yet know, wants to be great but doesn’t know how to express himself yet. As the boy passes time doodling in class and irritating his no-nonsense teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), Paul becomes fast friends with Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a rebellious-but-sweet-natured Black student who likewise aspires to greatness in the form of becoming an astronaut.

When Paul and Johnny share a joint in the boy’s bathroom one rather humdrum school day, Paul’s financially stable but class-conscious parents, Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong), opt to place their son in a nearby private school, where they hope their wayward son will eventually develop the social and business skills to excel. As Paul flounders his way into this uncomfortable new school system, the boy is caught between the expressed desires of his parents and his wavering friendship with Johnny. Particularly as the latter only continues to find himself rebelling even more against authority. 

“The land of dreams.”

Caught between the fractions of parental indignation, pubescent insecurity, self-actualizing, and an inability to express himself fully at such an impressionable age, Paul’s story, particularly as it relates to his friendship with Johnny, reflects the changing tides of a country torn between their own perceived biases and their own individualistic desires to match the ambitions of their elders. It becomes a remorseful yet clear-eyed examination of this specific era, as seen through the filmmaker’s eyes. Maybe not always with historical accuracy, but certainly emotional honesty.

Where so many other coming-of-age tales aim for nostalgia and rose-tinted views of their youth, Gray presents an unabashed reflection of this chilling, harsh time period. A New York that turns against itself in the interest of economic gain and social hierarchy. Gray isn’t subtle in how he uses the past to lead into the present, particularly as Fred Trump plays a prominent role. But then there’s also Paul’s gentle-natured grandfather, Aaron (an unsurprisingly excellent Anthony Hopkins), a Holocaust survivor who strives to teach our child protagonist about the inherent and festering dangers of racial and systemic prejudice.

While Hopkins, Hathaway, and Strong are expectedly great in their supporting turns, the film rests on the shoulders of its two young stars to carry it through. Repeta’s intuitive, complicated central performance carries the emotional nuance of the story with firm confidence, while leaving room for frayed earnestness and genuine yearning. His performance resists the urge to be cutesy and squeaky clean, yet it’s also candid and filled with a restless messiness that evokes sincerity. 

Likewise, Webb’s tormented turn proves to be the film’s gnawing heart, and Armaggedon Time’s biggest and most crucial flaw is not allowing this young talent to have more time to shine. There’s already been some conversation around the film’s depiction of racial strife and how Webb’s Johnny is too much like a cipher to capture the heaviness of the material. The complaint is warranted, though the film’s central perspective is meant to reflect the filmmaker’s lack of certainty and apparent sorrow over this doomed friendship.

It often seems like Johnny is meant to be distant and unknowable — someone that Paul pushes away from for reasons that even he doesn’t understand, in a world that doesn’t strive to respect their companionship. This story is a tragedy, and the actors and filmmakers play it up dutifully and heartbreakingly. The aspirations at hand are ultimately so vast that this core friendship doesn’t get the time it needs to thrive in the tumultuous second act of the film, and that’s where the movie suffers the most. 

Armageddon Time – The bottom line.

At its best, Armageddon Time is both sweeping and intimate. It’s unafraid to dive into the thorniness and stickiness of this complicated decade, allowing us only a small glimpse of what it was and how it came to be. Gray’s eagerness might ultimately prove too grand for such a small-scale story at its heart, but the film is too engaging to dismiss and too rooted in reality to not carry modern relevance. Unlike so many nostalgic pictures before it, Armageddon Time appears to be wrestling with the deep-seated complexities of the past, and it’s only with the somewhat mawkish finale that it fails to live up to its focused perspective.

The filmmaker wants answers to some personal questions that may never come. We can retrace our steps, but we can’t go back to where we once were, or who we thought we were. We must live in the present and contend with the past. But that’s the easy route, and many people don’t have such opportunities given to them readily — no matter their social class, gender, or race. The world isn’t quite so affording. As Ronald Reagan finds himself becoming the most powerful man in the world during this movie, we know what story the country will inevitably tell. But we can also take comfort in knowing that, least at on a micro level, there’s room for development, growth, and change. Even as the movie ponders whether or not the damage done is ultimately too great to do much good.

Armageddon Time is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.

Featured image courtesy of Focus Features.

  • ARMAGEDDON TIME - 7.5/10
Will Ashton

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