One of America’s most talented filmmakers for the best part of two decades, James Gray (Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z) may, with the autobiographical Armageddon Time, be a victim of his own talent. The director plumbs the depths of his privileged yet insecure upbringing in Queens during the late-70s and early-80s with such a singular focus on the experiences of middle-schooler Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) that you’ll be forgiven for cringing at some of its flippancy. That’s the point. Paul is a sensitive New York City sixth-grader with long hair and a high voice. His only connections to the toughness of life come through the occasionally violent temper of his father Irving (Jeremy Strong) and, more commonly, tales of the Holocaust told by granddad Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), the father of Paul’s mom Esther (Anne Hathaway). Life, for the most part, is not uncomfortable, even if next-president Reagan’s primetime TV warnings of “Armageddon time” sprinkle in some existential dread.
Johnny (Jaylin Webb), on the other hand, gets a hard slap in the face from the toughness of life every morning. Starting sixth grade for a second time under Mr Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), who wastes no time in calling him an “animal,” Johnny lives with his elderly grandmother. He wants to be an astronaut; despite being told by a disillusioned teen on the subway that NASA doesn’t hire Black people.
Paul admires Johnny’s confidence and Johnny becomes something of a big brother to Paul, whose actual older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) is mean and not much else. Paul sees in Johnny the entirely racialised experience his grandfather told him about, and which he knows he still has a stake in, however small. With that setup, Armageddon Time becomes a pretty loose buddy film with heavier themes lurking under the surface. I found myself confused at why certain scenes were in the movie, or where this was all heading. That may, again, be the point. Isn’t that what being a kid is like?
To say much more about Armageddon Time’s plot would give more away than it’s useful to know. Anyway, plot isn’t exactly what we’re here for. Gray sets out to explore the ethics of key decisions made by him, and other privileged boys like him, at a crucial time in their lives. When Johnny moves out of his home and sleeps in Paul’s shed for a time, the brazenness with which Johnny’s homelessness is presented jars. Ditto Irving’s racism; he doesn’t call Chinese takeaway “Chinese,” I’ll put it that way. These are all (effective, successful) attempts on Gray’s part to tell us just how much of a bubble he lived in.
Strong and Hathaway do a tremendous job of playing characters who seem like cliches as anything but. Both get their chances to shine. Esther warning Paul that he might “catch his father’s temper” feels like a clue for Gray’s entire filmography. And the way Strong carries Irving’s careful relationship with Aaron results in one breathtakingly beautiful scene. But if anyone steals the show, it’s Hopkins, in a refreshingly old-school supporting role. Aaron is Paul’s guiding light and the heart of a universe that sometimes seems heartless. Paul listens intently. Armageddon Time shows that Gray is still listening.
This review is from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release Armageddon Time later this year.
Photo: James Gray