An intimate coming-of-age tale which, despite its flaws, has enough heart to win you over.
Armageddon Time is James Gray’s most intimate work to date and a project which sees the filmmaker return to his roots, both literally and figuratively. Not only is this the story of Gray’s own upbringing as a Jewish boy chasing the American dream, but it’s a drama movie akin to his earlier, more grounded works.
A far cry from the cerebral science fiction movie Ad Astra and the sprawling movie based on a true story The Lost City of Z, Armageddon Time is compact in scale, yet equally impressive in its emotional payoff. In 1980, young Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta) is a child who doesn’t quite conform to what his family and society expect of him. Paul is a rebel, but he learns valuable lessons along the way.
On the one hand, Armageddon Time can be viewed as a thoughtful ode to what is clearly a very formative time in Gray’s life. The fact this film is incredibly personal to Gray shines through, with a palpable sense of catharsis. At times delightful, at others dark and haunting, it’s a coming-of-age story that doesn’t try to hide the fact that growing up is tough.
But, where the film succeeds in its exploration of the Graff family, it becomes more difficult to dissect when you consider the socio-political elements that form the contextual backdrop for the events of the story. The precarious political climate of the time, the flagrant racism ingrained in society, the concept of the class divide in America. These are not easy notions to build a story around and Gray’s handling of any and all of them will certainly divide audiences.
One element that cannot be questioned, though, is the theme of ambition and the impact our parents have on the path our lives take. In Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong), Paul has two very caring yet stifling parents, both of whom are determined to see Paul succeed. But only if that success aligns with their own idea of what being successful actually is.
It’s funny really, that the star of a TV series called Succession, in which Strong’s Kendall Roy constantly battles with his father’s expectations and condemnations, would go on to play this father figure here. While Hathaway takes a more muted approach to her performance, Strong displays his range as an actor brilliantly. His portrayal of Irving is terrifying at times, but there’s a pitiful side to the character, too, which he reveals in the more tender moments towards the end of the film.
Paul finds an escape from the pressure of his parents in the touching relationship he shares with his Grandpa. Legendary actor Anthony Hopkins is excellent in the role, as we have come to expect, and he imbues his character with a loving and gentle aura that is needed as much by Paul as it is the audience.
A performance that deserves special mention is that of Jaylin Webb, who for such a young actor, carries great responsibility on his shoulders to bear the burden of the racial tensions within the narrative. Webb exhibits maturity beyond his years and has an endearing bravado, but there’s always a childlike fragility just beneath the surface; a complex balance to achieve.
The dynamic between Paul and Johnny is the beating heart of the film and the very different lives the pair lead offers a scathing indictment of the time. Paul may not be from a rich and powerful family, but the stark difference between his situation and that of Johnny’s is something Gray doesn’t let us forget.
Indeed, the contrasting experiences of the two young characters are indicative of the core messages the director looks to transmit here. While Paul and his Grandpa share a strong bond, this is not a luxury afforded to Johnny and his Grandmother, who are kept apart by the system they exist within.
As Irving tells Paul during a particularly moving scene towards the end of the film, “Life is unfair. Sometimes people get a raw deal… but you have to survive.” The problem is, some people have to fight a damn sight harder to survive, and what Paul is really learning here is that in life, you must choose between selfishness and sacrifice.
The theme of loss is something which Gray often deals with in his work to a varying degree. The Brad Pitt movie Ad Astra, for example, may have been set in space, but it’s a rather simple story of detachment and a grief, of sorts. With Armageddon Time, Gray delivers a more exact and painful depiction of death and grief and the different ways people deal with loss.
When the emotional moments work in Armageddon Time, the film is poignant and poetic. However, there are some instances where this is undermined, either through the way they are shot or dialogue is delivered, and the moments become more melodramatic and unconvincing. A scene where Paul takes a beating from his father stands out in particular, with unusual blocking and editing disturbing the rhythm of the scene and making the sequence feel performative.
The other key obstacle holding this film back is the fact that its protagonist is not a very likeable character. Although I’m sure Gray intentionally painted Paul in this way – a child who lies and steals, disrespects his family and puts his friend in danger – it’s always going to be more difficult to engage with the story when we can’t quite connect with the core character.
Nevertheless, Armageddon Time has all the technical prowess one would expect from a filmmaker who cares so profoundly about the art of storytelling. Every frame feels rich and precious, every song on the soundtrack is carefully selected, every actor completely understands the assignment.
The film may not manage to keep every plate spinning when it comes to its broader thematic elements and how important you perceive the handling of any one of them could make or break the experience. But one thing’s for sure, Armageddon Time is a film with its heart in the right place.