Armageddon Time

Armageddon Time

2022, R, 115 min. Directed by James Gray. Starring Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Sell, Andrew Polk, Tovah Feldshuh, John Diehl.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 4, 2022

No matter how many times you’ve heard it said that life isn’t fair, there remains something inside you that refuses to fully accept that bleak truth, a naive desire that clings to the idea of a just universe. The recognition of this harsh reality is bound up with the end of childhood, a time when children see that they are not the center of the universe, that the cosmos do not revolve around single individuals. Paul Graff (Repeta), a sixth-grader who lives in Flushing, Queens, with his middle-class, liberal, first-generation Jewish parents (Hathaway and Strong, both superb), is coming into this knowledge in Armageddon Time.

The year is 1980, and armageddon is a word used by Ronald Reagan in reference to the geopolitical destiny of the United States and the so-called evil empire. The year is an inflection point in the mind of writer/director James Gray, a time in which he sees the American dream taking a turn from an even keel to a freewheeling smash-and-grab.

This is not the first time Gray has located one of his movies in the New York boroughs (Little Odessa, Two Lovers, The Immigrant), but this is the first time his story contains so many autobiographical elements. Following his recent trips to the jungle (The Lost City of Z) and outer space (Ad Astra), Armageddon Time is infused with a sense of close intimacy and personal truth, and the result is Gray’s best film to date.

The inequities of life begin to dawn on Paul when he and another class clown, Johnny Davis (Webb), a Black kid who’s been held back a year and is the only child of color in the class, are punished differently and unequally for their misbehaviors. Paul’s beloved grandfather (Hopkins) helps build the boy’s character but often his advice is paradoxical: Sometimes he says to be a mensch and stand up for your friend; other times he recommends making moral compromises to survive, which comes from his experience as a Jew who fled Europe. When Paul is moved from public school to private (a school based on Kew Forest, the school attended by the Trump children and which patriarch Fred sat on the board of directors for), Paul learns the sting of polite antisemitism, as well. (Jessica Chastain performs a cameo as Maryanne Trump, who comes to the school to give a speech about hard work and not taking handouts.)

Armageddon Time sometimes fails to fully clarify Gray’s ideas about the social order, but what it lacks in explicit moral structure the film more than makes up for in historic sensibility. All the film’s accoutrements are note-perfect from the costuming to the music, performances, and set design. Messy family life and moral ideals perfuse the film’s landscape but the film shows how these things can become the foundational elements of an individual’s life.

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More James Gray Films
Ad Astra
Brad Pitt deals with a case of the space ... madness!

Richard Whittaker, Sept. 20, 2019

The Lost City of Z
A futile quest for an extraordinary place

Steve Davis, April 21, 2017

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Armageddon Time, James Gray, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Sell, Andrew Polk, Tovah Feldshuh, John Diehl

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