Review: “Armageddon Time”

I walked out of “Armageddon Time,” writer and director James Gray’s coming-of-age drama inspired by his own upbringing, feeling an unexpected sense of unease. I attribute it to the fact that when I watched the movie, it was election night in America, the midterms that would determine, among other things, which party takes control of the House and Senate. “Armageddon Time” ends on a similar note of anxiety about the country’s future, as the family at the center of the story watch in distress as Ronald Reagan—who would turn the United States farther in a conservative direction with his policies—wins the 1980 Presidential election. Unlike most filmmakers’ personal ruminations on their childhood, “Armageddon Time” is rarely tinged with warm, nostalgic feelings. Gray opts instead for a story that ponders classism, racism, and anti-Semitism in 1980 Queens, ugly subjects that draw out ugly behavior from many of the characters.

But it wasn’t solely the fact that “Armageddon Time” felt like it was somewhat mirroring current events, including the expression of abject discrimination that has only grown more obvious up to and past the Trump presidency as conservatives in power essentially grant those individuals permission to more publicly express their hate, that left me with a sour taste. Gray’s film revolves around his protagonist, a 12-year-old Jewish boy named Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), reckoning with his privilege and the prejudice he sees around him after befriending a Black classmate, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb). The messaging—that those in positions of privilege ought to use said privilege to stand up for the rights of those who don’t—is well-intentioned but horrendously executed, with its frequently shallow rendering of Johnny resulting in yet another movie where a Black character’s suffering is used to teach a white character a lesson.

Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway as Irving and Esther Graff in “Armageddon Time”

“Armageddon Time” is intriguing in how it presents varying layers of discrimination. As a Jewish family, the Graff’s have been persecuted for decades. At a family dinner early in the movie, Paul’s grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) recounts how his mother fled persecution for her faith in Ukraine before ultimately immigrating to the U.S. with her husband and infant Aaron. The Graff’s continue to do what they can to integrate themselves into the upper-class, predominantly white Christian world that’s viewed as where you need to be to succeed, going so far as shortening their obviously Jewish last name to Graff so Paul and his older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) can get in to an elite private school, whose donors include the likes of Fred Trump (John Diehl), and whose students express an enthusiasm for Reagan that the Graff’s obviously don’t share. But no one is a monolith, and when Paul begins increasingly acting out at his public school, his parents Irving (Jeremy Strong doing his best Ray Romano) and Esther (Anne Hathaway in a solid, understated role that juggles keeping up public appearances with maintaining order at home) automatically attribute Paul’s behavior to Johnny and forbid Paul from seeing him. Even Paul’s grandmother, in the same conversation where they discuss fleeing Jewish persecution in Europe, verbalizes more specifically outright prejudice toward “the Blacks.”

But while these layers are present in the movie, Gray interrogates them with very little depth. The differences in class are handled with perhaps too much nuance; the most telling scenes are an early one in which Paul tells Johnny that he can get him the money needed for a class trip to the Guggenheim (“my family is super rich,” he brags), but Paul’s perception of his family’s economic status doesn’t exactly align with what we see when we actually meet them later. And when driving home through a neighborhood of lavish houses, Esther gazes at them with a mixture of odd and envy, murmuring that the people who live in them must have “more money than God.” Johnny’s very different home life is only alluded to; he resides with his sick grandmother, some men keep coming around trying to put him in foster care. When Johnny is on screen, we see the ways, both subtle and obvious, that racism is at work. Paul and Johnny’s teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), has had Johnny as a student before (Johnny was held back a grade), and is more than ready to punish him for what he perceives as stupidity and a lack of interest in or ability to learn. And it’s no wonder—every time the class is engaged in some kind of learning activity, Turkeltaub has Johnny sitting at a desk alone, or cleaning the room. In reality, Johnny aspires to be an astronaut (he clutches his collection of NASA stickers like they’re $100 bills), but an encounter with some older Black men on the subway, who tell him there’s no way NASA would like a Black man go to space, rattles him.

Anthony Hopkins as Aaron and Banks Repeta as Paul in “Armageddon Time”

The pair together form a fast and easy-going friendship, but the gulf between their different lives can’t be fully bridged. Ultimately, this is a story about Paul. Johnny is just there for him to learn a lesson, as illustrated by a later scene in which Paul finally confides in his grandfather, the one person in the family he can open up to, his discomfort with the kids at his private school saying bad things about the Black kids. Hopkins’ gentle but towering presence lends more power to Aaron’s mundane response: that when Paul sees things like that happening, he needs to use his privilege to stand up for those who can’t, that he has to “be a mensch.” Johnny is repeatedly punished as a result of actions that are largely Paul’s fault, and at the end of the movie, no one is particularly concerned with Johnny’s fate—except for Paul. Sure, that’s likely the point of what Gray is getting at, but Johnny isn’t the only character who is sidelined in the final act. Hathaway’s Esther, a fascinating presence every time she is on screen early in the movie, turns into little more than a vessel for grief and just disappears after a point.

“Armageddon Time” is strongest when it zeroes in on the family and friendship dynamics. An early scene in which the large Graff family gathers for a dinner that fast turns chaotic (and establishes how little concern Paul has for the consequences of his actions, a lack of forethought that comes back to bite him later) is a delightful clash of personalities. A later scene in which Paul and Johnny run away from the school trip to explore Manhattan on their own, ending up in a seedy pinball joint, is a lovely expression of youth and freedom. And there’s an amusing dream sequence that brings Paul’s aspirations of being a famous artist to life. Repeta, by the way, deftly conveys the various aspects of Paul’s personality, from his desire to act out for the amusement of others, to his selfishness, to his uncertainty and fear when confronted with tough and confusing situations. Webb turns in a solid, simmering performance as well. But in “Armageddon Time,” he isn’t even lit properly much of the time he is on screen. Perhaps that technicality is an apt expression of what little concern the movie has for his character. Johnny isn’t a fully-fleshed out individual; he’s a plot device. The final product hammers home hard truths about America and hardly paints a rosy portrait of the country then and now, but at what cost?

“Armageddon Time” is now playing in theaters.” Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated R.

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