On its face, Armageddon Time resembles a conventional coming-of-age saga about a young Jewish boy in 198src Queens, New York, grappling with familial, social and educational anxieties and traumas. Yet writer/director James Gray’s follow-up to 2src19’s Ad Astra is, beneath that surface, a prickly revisitation of remembrances past, miring itself in a morass of tragedy, heartache, and the complications born from privilege. Premiering in theaters on Oct. 28 (following debuts at the Cannes and New York film festivals), it’s a heartfelt and somber semi-autobiographical look backward that nonetheless resonates as a universal story about the necessity—and sometimes painful cost—of survival.
Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a sixth-grader with his head in the clouds—or, at least, with dreams of being an artist, which does much to undercut his academic development. Further hindering his school performance is a wiseass attitude that he also exhibits at a crowded dinner table populated by his PTA bigwig mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), his handyman father Irving (Jeremy Strong), his annoying older brother Ted (Ryan Sell), and his aunt, uncle and grandparents Mickey (Tovah Feldshuh) and Aaron (Anthony Hopkins). Badmouthing his mom’s cooking and ordering Chinese dumplings mid-meal—much to his parents’ chagrin—Paul has a smart mouth and a disobedient streak a mile wide. Still, he’s intensely devoted to Aaron, whom he views as a loving friend, mentor and confidant, and with whom he shares the type of foundational bond he doesn’t have with either his sweet mom or his tough—and occasionally abusive—dad.
Paul’s other close relationship is with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a NASA-loving Black classmate who was held back a year and who routinely spars with their teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk). Johnny’s brash behavior is an outgrowth of the not-so-subtle racism that wafts through this neighborhood’s air, evident in Turkeltaub’s disparaging comments as well as Mickey’s opinion that Paul should abandon his public school because of its overcrowded classrooms and its Black students. Johnny lives with his grandmother and has little money, and when a class trip to the Guggenheim Museum is announced, Paul offers to front Johnny the cash needed to go, claiming that his family is rich. This isn’t true—the Graffs appear to be lower middle-class—but such socioeconomic tensions are ever-present in Paul’s day-to-day, especially since his sibling Ted attends a private school that’s paid for by his grandparents.
Armageddon Time understands these dynamics yet doesn’t preach, instead empathetically following Paul as he navigates a landscape fraught with contradictions and landmines. In a moving bedtime speech, Aaron recounts his own mother’s tragic suffering at the hands of—and arduous escape from—Ukrainian Cossacks, underscoring the antisemitism that compelled his clan to change their name from Rabinowitz, and which they now seek to evade via integration with the city’s elites. That takes place courtesy of Ted’s modern and upscale Forest Manor Prep (an approximation of the real-life Kew-Forest School), where Paul is sent after he and Johnny are caught smoking a joint in the boys’ bathroom, and Esther and Irving—refusing to believe that Paul is “slow,” and eager to correct his wayward course (and get him away from Johnny)—find themselves with no other options.
Forest Manor Prep is an institution comprised of future preppies who have no qualms about using the N-word to describe Johnny when he stops by to chat with Paul, and it happens to be funded by Donald Trump’s father Fred Trump (John Diehl) while his sister Maryanne (Jessica Chastain) is a celebrated alumnus. In an assembly speech, Maryanne decries “handouts” and champions tireless hard work as the means by which these boys and girls will succeed, thereby ignoring the leg-up circumstances that have afforded them (and herself) such advantageous opportunities. “The game is rigged,” says Aaron with regards to society’s discrimination against the Jews, and that similarly goes for Johnny (and, by extension, Black Americans) in Armageddon Time, which immerses itself in a thicket of knotty issues about class and race, individualism and entitlement. Certainly, Paul’s mounting distress—about himself, his prospects, and the way in which he should engage with the world—is a symptom of both his particular hardships and larger national strains.
Whether it’s Aaron relaying how his mother never liked spaghetti because, upon arriving at Ellis Island, she thought it looked like “bloody worms,” or a Native American-themed pinball game that Paul and Johnny play at the local arcade, Armageddon Time is rife with comments, details, and incidents that resound with lived-in authenticity and loaded political import. Gray’s story imagines its characters as intricate byproducts of their inherited histories and current situations, all as it doggedly attunes itself to Paul’s perspective and the way in which his experiences expand and shape his worldview. That invariably shortchanges the POV of Johnny, who’s merely one of many players in Paul’s personal drama. Even so, it also results in a multifaceted inquiry into topics of assimilation, endurance, and the sacrifices we’re willing (or have) to make in order to thrive in a melting pot that doesn’t always evenly coalesce.
Gray’s story imagines its characters as intricate byproducts of their inherited histories and current situations, all as it doggedly attunes itself to Paul’s perspective and the way in which his experiences expand and shape his worldview.
A more specific, thorny and challenging examination of Jewish childhood than Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Armageddon Time benefits from Gray’s sharp writing and warm aesthetics (which boast ’7srcs-style zooms and the fading yellow-brown patina of the era’s photographs) and from a collection of sterling performances. Strong avoids rendering Irving just a pent-up bully, casting his fury as a manifestation of contemporary and lifelong pressures, while Hathaway embodies Esther as compassionate and stern, as well as slightly elusive in the way that parents often feel to adolescents. If Hopkins’ affecting grandfather routine isn’t unique, it functions as the film’s emotional center, and Repeta turns Paul into a compelling protagonist by refusing to make him wholly likable; rather, he strikes the right balance between kindhearted innocence and cocky rebelliousness.
Exploring the formative factors and figures that molded his outlook on tolerance, fairness and equality, Gray’s Armageddon Time is a semi-autobiographical rumination that aims to comprehend the messiness of modern America. Like its ancestor-of-immigrants protagonist, it doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s willing to ask—and ponder—the questions at the heart of our complex national condition.