After going to outer space in Ad Astra, director James Gray returns with a semi-autobiographical story in Armageddon Time. The roots of Gray’s own upbringing in Queens in a family descended from Russian Jews can be found here, though this story focuses on Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) who aspires to be an artist. He often draws the ire of his parents Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong) for that reason and for his mischievous behavior. He finds comfort with his maternal grandfather Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), who is the only one who treats Paul like the center of his world while also taking time to give him important life lessons. While Gray could be nostalgic, looking into his own past for inspiration finds plenty of regret. It is a melancholy and turbulent time, one that Gray tries to reckon with and one that finds him admitting plenty of personal guilt and fault.
Central to Armageddon Time are themes of identity, the American Dream, white privilege, cultural assimilation, and bystanderism. The core relationship that Paul will form in 1980 Queens is with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black student in his class (before Paul is sent to private school). The pair are inseparable and Paul truly feels free whenever around Johnny. Repeta and Webb have a good, natural chemistry with both boys turning in impressive performances, especially for actors of their age. Though this friendship could be a source of nostalgia, it is more often a source of the film’s feeling of regret and remorse. Gray’s vision of the past is one where white privilege plays an important role in keeping young Paul on a path to success, while Johnny ends up forgotten about and facing punishment for the both of them. Paul gets a new uniform for school, while Johnny’s sole outfit gets more worn out by the day. Too often, Paul sits back and watches racism happen to Johnny. Too often, men like his father Irving urge him to just forget, “move forward”, and appreciate the leg up. Gray does not let himself nor Paul off-the-hook, laying bare the ugly reality of this situation and taking a self-critical look at how he benefited from white privilege, while Johnny suffered at the hands of systemic racism.
Armageddon Time’s look at identity and the American Dream has a similarly critical eye. Aspiration surrounds Paul, whether in his privileged new private school or in the words he hears. Speakers at the school like Fred (John Diehl) and Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) urge the students to “fulfill their obligation” and become important leaders (namely senators, CEOs, etc) or to build themselves up without handouts in the “greatest country in the world.” His parents preach the same, urging him to not pursue art as a career because it is not lucrative. The American Dream, as shown in Armageddon Time, is open to just a select few. Those at the public school, like Johnny, are looked down upon or othered, especially the non-white students. Success is preached only to the students already privileged and given every tool (computers, new books, and smaller class sizes) to succeed, while barriers are in the way of everyone else. As a result, Armageddon Time’s lack of nostalgic glow is not just from personal regret but from frustration, recognizing that the system Paul benefited from is also one that has discarded countless others for not fitting societal restrictions.
Gray sees his own family as having tacitly contributed to this system, largely via their larger cultural assimilation. What started with changing their name to Graff and with hard work has turned into racism. As much as they believe in the “American Dream”, the family’s racism – expressed via lamentations about having Black students in the classroom or via fears over a “Black boy in the alley” – has been ingrained in them through the larger Americanization process. Though the United States has been beneficial to the family, they actively traffic in the prejudice that sees barriers put in place for others to build up through the same channels. Aaron Rabinowitz, one of the few family members to not change his name, is the only one trying to teach Paul something different: empathy and strength. Through his historical lessons about antisemitism, he shows Paul not only where he comes from and the antisemitism that still exists, but the terror and horror that hate creates. What voice he has gained through his white and economic privilege is to be used now in defense of others with Aaron urging him to be a “mensch” whenever he hears other boys talk ill of Johnny or other Black people and to not simply be a bystander in the face of prejudice.
In line with the anti-nostalgic viewpoint is the film’s cinematography. DP Darius Khondji gives the film a washed out appearance, looking somewhat like a faded memory. It has a cold look, feeding off the fall season to create a harsh and chilly mood with no glossy rose-colored glasses obscuring the perspective. In Paul, Armageddon Time finds its viewpoint with Khondji using point-of-view (POV) shots and close-ups to draw the viewer into his mind. Framing a sick relative in the foreground with Paul’s confused, sad face ever-present in the middle of the frame, a POV shot as he passively watches fellow students makes racist remarks about Johnny, or the intense close-up as his father disciplines him, all serve as crucial moments that take a glimpse into this transformative time for him. As much as he faces larger issues, Paul’s development as an often ill-behaved yet good natured kid is crucial to the film and Armageddon Time never struggles to elicit empathy and compassion for his confusion and pain during this turbulent time in his life.
Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb are not the only two cast members who impress with the entirety of the adult cast bringing something to the table. Anthony Hopkins’ gentle and nuanced approach to playing Paul’s wise and beloved grandfather makes him into one of the warm presences in the film. Wherever he goes, he brings his love for Paul with him and Hopkins’ expressive, worn eyes bring this to the surface. Jeremy Strong feels, appropriately, like a grown-up version of Paul as Irving Graff. Confused and uncertain how to be in the role he is – whether as father or family leader – he walks around with a turbulent and often aggressive nature, trying to balance with a nurturing side that does not come naturally. Strong’s naturalism is key to crafting Irving as a character with his every step and action feeling authentic, never overacting or feeling implausible.
Paul Graff is just a child, one still finding his voice and way in a complicated world. James Gray sees himself in Paul and in taking a self-critical view, he does not let Paul off-the-hook. There is frustration when Paul does not speak up against prejudice, regret for when he pulls back from being friends with Johnny, and contempt for his role within a larger system of systemic racism. As Armageddon Time shows and Aaron Rabinowitz implores Paul to learn, there is a personal responsibility to be a “mensch”, standing up when something is wrong and to use one’s voice. While Armageddon Time recognizes and critiques the larger system, this is a personal story, one filled with personal reckoning and remorse for how life was in 1980s New York. James Gray’s Armageddon Time is a powerful and stirring story, rich with lived-in detail and empathy.