Armageddon Time
Photo: Focus Features

Armageddon Time Review: James Gray’s Provocative Cine-Memoir

The film is an illustration of the transition from the ethical pliancy of youth to the moral discernment of adulthood.

The challenges of turning life into fiction are legion, yet writer-director James Gray avoids almost all pitfalls in his gently provocative cine-memoir Armageddon Time. Based on his own experiences growing up as a sixth grader in Queens, New York, circa 1980, the film has the wispy and delicate feel of memory, though its dexterous narrative architecture provides a sturdy framework atop which Gray’s masterfully conjured remembrances can freely drift.

Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is the filmmaker’s on-screen surrogate, a talented young troublemaker who, on the first day of middle school, aggravates his teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), by drawing in class. His caricature of his by-the-book instructor is, so Paul attempts to explain, merely a way to make his classmates laugh. And one other student, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), takes particularly appreciative notice.

This is Johnny’s second time through sixth grade, something that Mr. Turkeltaub makes caustic note of, which results in sparks flying and dual punishments meted out. And so this self-same pair of rabble-rousers become fast friends—though it doesn’t take long for Paul to clock a more-than-slight disconnect in how Turkeltaub treats Johnny as compared to him.

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Paul is white and Johnny is Black. Simple as that. And yet, of course, as the iniquitous American experiment has shown time and again, not so simple. Armageddon Time sketches the tragic arc of the boys’ friendship (again, transposed from Gray’s actual exploits) against the backdrops of the Jewish Paul’s vibrant home life and a larger cultural reassertion, via the election of Ronald Reagan, of a number of dehumanizingly supremacist beliefs—racial, religious, and otherwise.

Gray courts plenty of danger with this setup, though he deftly avoids turning Armageddon Time into a guilty liberal apologia by maintaining a tricky balance between micro specificity and macro observation. Paul may be the story’s fulcrum, yet every character in Gray’s film, regardless the size of their role, feels as if they’re on equal footing with him. This is because Paul is still an open book, letting in every interaction and occurrence regardless of its beauty or horror. One way to read Armageddon Time, along with its ominous title, is as an illustration of the transition from the ethical pliancy of youth to the moral discernment of adulthood—an earth-shaking shift that could be a noble and empathetic transformation, though which might just as easily give rise to destructively hardwired biases and bigotry.

Everywhere Paul looks he sees examples of how one can act in the world, from the deep-rooted practicality of his plumber father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), whose “work hard” philosophy colors his every utterance, to the habituated emotionalism of his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), who’s attuned to every behavioral wrong step the family might make that could halt their social advancement. More in harmony with the disruptive Paul (who, like Gray in his own youth, is a burgeoning artist) is his grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), a Ukrainian-English immigrant who’s seen much of the worst mankind has to offer. He counsels the boy with a gruff benevolence born of that disenchantment—always encouraging him despite the inevitability that he will in some way step wrong. But how else can he learn?

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All three adult actors are excellent, though there’s something distracting at first about the figureheads of Paul’s family being played by such recognizable faces. As the film goes on, that feeling recedes, for what child, given the opportunity, wouldn’t conceive of those closest to them as movie stars? It also adds some productive tension between the film’s two thematic extremes—a nostalgic idealization of the past and a more sober scrutinizing of it.

Not idealized at all are Paul’s encounters with a certain influential New York family, one of whose members would go on to the U.S. presidency. It’s also a part of Gray’s bio that he came face to face with many in the Trump family, who were benefactors of the tony (read: majority rich and white) private school to which he, like his on-screen alter ego, was eventually shuttled. Donald doesn’t make an appearance here, but his businessman father, Fred (John Diehl), and his attorney sister, Maryanne (Jessica Chastain), do. Gray manages to nimbly navigate this fraught terrain as well, again by leaning into Paul’s curiosity about everyone he comes across. In the shaping of a singular consciousness, even these vaguely threatening people (with their doctrinaire “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality) are worth considering, if still ultimately rejecting. One of the film’s climactic beats even revolves, hilariously, around walking out of a Papa Trump social gathering that unfolds like one of his offspring’s political rallies.

As with most of Gray’s work, the funny moments serve to put forth a vision of life where the bleak wins out—or, at least, tends to take the day more often than not. What’s bittersweet about Paul coming into his own is how lonely it proves to be. To take a genuine stance in life often means knowing that, foundationally, we are alone in our experiences and our various epiphanies about them. So the one moment here that feels like an unquestionable flaw is when Gray shifts briefly to Johnny’s perspective, envisioning a tender moment between him and his grandmother that’s sweet in theory, yet presumptive in execution. Johnny exists, like most every character in Armageddon Time, as stimulus to Paul. And Johnny is more three-dimensionally human the more his life outside of his and Paul’s interactions remains mysterious, suggested rather than shown. This is the single instance where it feels like Gray is contriving to make amends as opposed to being scrupulously true to the limitations of his own perspective.

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The filmmaker quickly rights things, thankfully, building to a quietly heartbreaking sequence that juggles a multiplicity of perspectives—Paul’s, Johnny’s, Irving’s, and that of a police sergeant, D’Arienzo (Domenick Lombardozzi), whose compassion only leans in certain socio-politically preordained directions—as it visualizes the permanent implosion of a friendship. The way that Johnny is effaced from Paul’s life, the architecture of the room he’s in effectively wiping him from existence, is especially brutal, and a testament, too, to the keen eye throughout of Gray’s frequent cinematographer, Darius Khondji.

The lifelong burden that Paul, and Gray, carries is specific to this moment. Though it’s an obligation rife with traps and twisted by intentions both good and ill. There’s no guarantee that anything of truly lasting value can be learned from these events. And if all Paul can do, as he imagines one character saying to him, is try his best going forward, that’s not something that Armageddon Time, in its serenely pitiless way, ever suggests can be enough.

Score: 
 Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Tovah Feldshuh, John Diehl, Andrew Polk, Ryan Sell, Jacob Mackinnon, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Domenick Lombardozzi  Director: James Gray  Screenwriter: James Gray  Distributor: Focus Features  Running Time: 115 min  Rating: R  Year: 2022

Keith Uhlich

Keith Uhlich is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has been published in The Hollywood Reporter, BBC, and Reverse Shot, among other publications. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.

1 Comment

  1. I can’t wait to see this movie ! As opposed to Spielberg’s two and a half hour Family Therapy Session ! And I’m still angry about Harvey Weinstein’s destroying The Immigrant because James Gray would not bend the knee and kiss the ring of Pope Harvey the First !

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