Writer/director James Gray’s latest effort is an autobiographical slice of life from his own childhood. Like many of his films, ARMAGEDDON TIME is set in New York, specifically Queens, beginning on September 8, 1980. This is the first day of sixth grade for Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) --- representing James --- at PS 173. He meets Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a smart Black classmate, who is already on bad terms with their teacher.
From there, things don’t improve at all for Johnny, while, at the insistence of his beloved Grandpa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) and Grandma Mickey (Tovah Feldshuh), Paul is moved to the private Kew-Forest School in upscale Forest Hills, Queens. The student/teacher ratio is much better, but the other students are hugely privileged --- and Paul feels like an outcast.
His parents, Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong), are unable to keep Paul in line. Esther teaches home economics and is president of the PTA and Irving works doing home improvement projects. Though Paul is very close to his mother, he hates his father, who doesn’t seem capable of relating to his younger son. Paul’s greatest love is for his grandfather, and they share a bond most would envy.
Many things Paul experiences are directly from Gray’s own youth. The title ARMAGEDDON TIME refers to living in constant threat of nuclear war --- Armageddon --- in that time period. It also refers to Paul’s transfer to another school and leaving behind his classmates --- and comfort.
As screenwriter, Gray is very interested in his family’s pursuit of the American Dream. Both of his parents were children of Jewish immigrants. It was typical of them --- like the characters in ARMAGEDDON TIME --- to sit around the dinner table with multiple relatives discussing the topics of the day, hoping their children would glean the importance of hard work and perseverance to make a better life than they had.
Though Gray’s efforts are commendable, ARMAGEDDON TIME treads too lightly on many of the issues facing these impressionable children. He places Paul and Johnny in untenable situations, but then cops out on the resolutions. The two youngsters --- at Paul’s behest --- break into Paul’s new school to steal a computer.
Paul is greatly unhappy at home and wants to escape. Johnny has been living with his grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and now is being sought by social workers to be placed elsewhere. They plan on using the funds from the pilfered computer to run off to Florida, where Johnny can become an astronaut and Paul can pursue his love of art. He so desperately wants to be an artist.
Instead, the pawn shop owner calls the cops, and both boys are put into custody. Paul tries to explain that he is responsible, but Johnny, clearly reading their predicament, claims he is to blame. Irving shows up and because of a previous relationship with the arresting officer, Paul is allowed to go home while Johnny goes to juvenile detention. And so goes the world ---
This is just one example of the issues Gray attempts to tackle. But a certain deftness is lacking. Most of what is presented is vaguely touched upon with Gray not delving deep enough. Parental abuse, racism, anti-Semitism, money issues, to name a few, are exposed, but with little or no consequences.
The director has assembled quite a cast. The two boys, Repeta and Webb, are amazing. Repeta has the unusual gift of saying a great deal without speaking. His phenomenally expressive eyes combined with his angelic face and adorable curly locks catapult him into a stratosphere inhabited by only a few. And Webb has the intensity and solemnity of an adult actor --- he’s terrific.
Hopkins has made playing fathers and grandfathers his own new best thing. He’s absolutely perfect as Paul’s confidante and protector --- the only one who truly sees and understands him. Strong has a tough balancing act --- the strict father and the loving, respectful son-in-law. He makes it look so effortless. And Hathaway, though Esther is a thankless role, does what she can with the mother’s constant handwringing.
Despite these sterling performances, ARMAGEDDON TIME simply doesn’t make enough of a statement regarding the issues this family and many others have faced and are still facing today. Though to some it may be a revelatory look at this era, for me, Gray missed an opportunity to make a few bolder commentaries. And his abrupt, unsatisfactory ending is a complete disappointment.
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Director James Gray, who also wrote and produced his latest film ARMAGEDDON TIME, takes us back to his childhood when he was a sixth grader in a Queens, New York public school in 1980. The movie stars Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Strong with two young actors in the critical child roles.
One is Banks Repeta as Paul Graff, son of Irving (Strong) and Esther (Hathaway) and grandson of Aaron (Hopkins). The other is Jaylin Webb as Johnny Davis, a savvy Black kid in the school, who bonds with Paul on their first day. The casting of these two superior young actors makes ARMAGEDDON TIME a totally worthwhile outing.
That’s not to demean the performances of Hathaway, Hopkins and Strong --- all are excellent --- but it is the kids’ story that drives the movie. Paul, who loves to make his classmates laugh, is a talented artist who dreams of becoming famous one day. But he is not supported in this by his family except for his beloved grandfather with whom he has very close ties. Hopkins is quietly sensational as the understanding grandpa who relates to Paul on many levels. And he imparts some very important life lessons.
Johnny, who has an older brother in the military, dreams of being an astronaut. Raised by his grandmother who now suffers from Alzheimer’s, Johnny feels completely isolated in the world other than his friendship with Paul. Both boys are thwarted and demeaned by their grade school teacher, Felix Turkeltaub (the delightfully mean Andrew Polk), who also exhibits racist tendencies indicated by his treatment of Johnny.
Gray explores a plethora of things in a young person’s life that don’t always go according to plan. ARMAGEDDON TIME is not a comedy by a long shot, but it is an examination of youthful lives affected by things out of their control. From the transfer to a private school for Paul --- to the theft of a computer by the boys --- to the death of a loved one --- we are privy to events to which many moviegoers will relate. For example, when the boys are caught smoking a joint in the school bathroom, Paul’s father Irving --- who has a terrible temper --- beats him with a strap.
Most importantly Gray has suffused his movie with rich characterizations that are clearly defined and made memorable by the cast. Even a brief appearance by Jessica Chastain as Maryanne Trump and a few scenes with John Diehl as Fred Trump --- yes, the former occupant’s father --- are seared into our brain. Hathaway’s motherly Esther is a limited role but still she is perfect. Hathaway does a superb job demonstrating Esther’s utter frustration at balancing motherhood with being a teacher and her position as PTA president.
Strong proves that the acting accolades that have come his way for “Succession” are no fluke. He is intimidating as Irving, the father with a bad temper, but he effectively reveals Irving’s calmer, more empathetic self as he tries to relate better to Paul.
Gray’s film is a realistic depiction of a dysfunctional family. ARMAGEDDON TIME is a faithful rendering of Gray’s childhood that should resonate with viewers who remember their own circumstances circa 1980. The film should also be impactful for today’s younger moviegoing audiences.
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