Twin Cities Film Festival coverage
Director: James Gray
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Anthony Hopkins
Screenplay: James Gray
115 mins. Rated R.
I was a big fan of We Own the Night, an early James Gray (The Immigrant) film from about 15 years back, and I was rather disappointed by Ad Astra, his most recent film, so I didn’t know what to expect from Armageddon Time. It’s a even split when director’s make a semi-autobiographical film of their lives, some of them being subtle and nuanced and others being heavy-handed and overly-melodramatic, but the cast of Armageddon Time really brought me in.
Set in the heavily-divided America of the 1980s, Armageddon Time is the story of a young boy, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta, The Black Phone, Uncle Frank) as he tries to traverse a world that is changing before his very eyes. As the school year starts, Paul’s looking for companionship, and he strikes up a friendship with the troublesome Johnny (Jaylin Webb, Till), one of the only black students who has been pre-judged by his teacher to be incapable of teaching. Johnny’s a target, and Paul’s parents don’t want him to be hanging out with one of the black boys. His grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs, Thor: Ragnarok) has a different perspective, having lived through many of the atrocities of the World Wars, seeing his Jewish heritage being seen as “other,” and he invites Paul to protect those that society has deemed unworthy. With the push-and-pull of this era at his backdrop, Paul struggles with his place in the world.
There are a lot of elements at play in Armageddon Time, but the one theme that jumped out at me is the idea of otherness that has pervaded many a time period, including the pivotal 1980s. They way that Gray juxtaposes the otherness of Black America with Paul’s family, who have seemingly cast aside the otherness of Jewish America that was still alive at the time (as well as in the past and, sadly, even today), is well-executed. Gray even uses the politics of the day well, showing an interview with Ronald Reagan discussing homosexuality as an apocalyptic problem, extending the range of otherness outside of race to showcase how many Americans were “others” at the time.
It would be easy to get lost in the shuffle with so many characters and a more subtle through-line in place for Armageddon Time, but the performances were what held together and elevated the material to an altogether captivating piece of cinema. I could call out practically any actor as a win here, but I want to focus on the opposing spectrum created by Jeremy Strong (The Big Short, The Trial of the Chicago 7) as Paul’s father Irving and Hopkins as Paul’s grandfather Aaron. While Irving is a stern father who cannot control his son no matter how many beatings he administers, Aaron takes a gentler, more focused parental role. There’s a central scene in the middle of the film (it’s the scene everyone seems to reference, but I’ll do so as well) in which Aaron is helping his grandson launch off a model rocket. Aaron’s soft but deft way of conversing with his grandson echoes the film’s central message of dealing with racists and those who build their lives around hatred: “Fuck ‘em.” It’s the duality of these competing messages that create the compelling back-and-forth for Paul, and it’s the eventuality of Paul’s struggle to do right by those he loves that ultimately make for a fulfilling drama.
Armageddon Time is a movie that weighs on the soul for some time after the final credits run. It’s one that only gains strength as its complex narrative web pulls at the audience. While the narrative occasionally stumbles in finding its footing, it’s one of Gray’s more accessible films, and one of his best.
-Kyle A. Goethe
- For my review of James Gray’s Ad Astra, click here.