80s Kids Will Remember
James Gray’s ‘Armageddon Time’: A nostalgic look back at America, a long time ago
Coming-of-Age stories are a tricky proposition: they almost always fall into a trap of being about that moment when everything changed forever. Armageddon Time is no exception. This minor-key movie, despite its hyperbolic, apocalypse-baiting misdirect of a name, has smart ideas percolating within its Bildungsroman dimensions. But James Gray’s semi-autobiographical evocation of one boy’s formative brush with racism and endemic inequality in Queens, New York, trades indict-the-system indignation for chin-stroking social justice ruminations. It’s troubled, not outraged, with a moderately haunting lessons-learned plot structure that pulls its punches and settles instead for a nostalgia-tinged sketch of a country’s nagging malaise.
ARMAGEDDON TIME ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: James Gray
Written by: James Gray
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb
Running time: 115 min
Gray is an accomplished director whose last few films include the masterfully mournful daddy-issues space odyssey Ad Astra; The Lost City of Z, an eerie period-piece jungle adventure gone wrong; and poignant Ellis Island drama The Immigrant. These are stories of protagonists struggling to find their place in worlds they don’t completely grasp, just like sixth grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), the prepubescent hero of Armageddon Time.
During a convulsive autumn in 1980, the restlessly creative Paul smokes pot, cuts out during a field trip, and helps steal computer equipment. His partner-in-crime is Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a rascally class clown who goads an eager Paul into delinquency and also happens to be black—which also sets up the film’s disappointingly simple moralistic dichotomy. One boy sinks, one boy swims; guess which is which.
The bad behavior freaks out his high-strung Jewish parents, community-service-striving mom Esther (Anne Hathaway, delivering her lines with an oy-vey relish) and stern repairman dad Irving (Jeremy Strong, characteristically intense). So they strain their finances and switch Paul from P.S. 173 to tony Forest Manor, where older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) already attends. Snobs and bullies abound, natch—plus a ghoulish real estate magnate Fred Trump (John Diehl), who literally haunts the hallways like the Ghost of MAGA Past. Also making an appearance is Jessica Chastain as his daughter and assistant state attorney, Maryanne Trump, who lectures the student body in an arresting cameo. Gray’s message: privilege corrupts, and absolute privilege corrupts absolutely.
Paul’s a budding artist with a knack for cartoonish graphic illustration; his full-throated booster is doting Ukranian grandfather Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins, never not Welsh), an immigrant who fled the Cossacks and has lived through the best and worst of humanity. The world needs artists, he crows with twinkling eyes, and stresses a principled outlook on life. Paul’s father Irving disagrees: he keeps his head down, works hard, swallows his coiled rage and believes that moral relativism is the only way to get ahead. “Make the most of your break and don’t look back,” he says after Paul has a close call with a life-altering felony. Idealism and realism loom over Paul’s tweener soul. Cue personal growth, with a side of sociopolitical commentary. It’s effective—Gray’s a smart filmmaker—but it feels a bit thin.
Armageddon Time gets its title from a jangly deep-cut song by The Clash, plus a passing comment that pre-presidential Ronald Reagan makes during that election-year season. The film aims to capture a flashpoint for a nuke-spooked country transitioning from stagflation-tainted Great Society aspiration to Yuppiefied dog-eat-dog realpolitik, and wants to reveal the modern-day origin of Donald Trump’s American carnage. Those gnarly roots run much deeper than this film can encompass. As a snapshot, though, Armageddon Time vividly evokes a young man’s sobering, bittersweet realization that world is always bifurcated into the virtuous and the venal.