Movie Review: Armageddon Time

James Gray explores his own childhood, unflinchingly.

Let me start with a public service announcement: Armageddon Time is a terrible title for a wonderful movie. It’s an intimate, poignant, and preternaturally clear-eyed family drama, not a science fiction film. The title is, apparently, a reference to a Clash song, and meant to signify an inflection point in American life—politically, culturally, and on the world stage. I repeat: No planets were harmed in the making of this film.

Our hero is Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a stand-in for the film’s creator, the gifted writer-director James Gray. On his first day of middle school at P.S. 173 in Queens, Paul makes a new friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb). Both boys are extremely bright and a little dreamy—Paul wants to be an artist and Johnny wants to be an astronaut—and they both intuitively bristle at authority. They bond over these things, as well as a love of music. It’s 1980: Paul is still really into the Beatles (he’s hopeful they’re going to get back together—and you can’t help to feel a twinge of sorrow knowing how the year will end). But Johnny is into more current music—he turns Paul onto The Sugarhill Gang.

It’s important to note that Paul is a third generation American Jew and Johnny is African American, as those things will dictate their fates in ways both big and small.

We see right away that Paul and Johnny both get into trouble for insubordination in class—but Johnny gets into more trouble. Additionally, the teacher calls Johnny names, suggests that he’s stupid. Johnny, understandably, develops a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

The differences between their home lives are also quite stark: Johnny lives with his ailing and cognitively declining grandmother, who he says doesn’t always remember his name. Paul lives in a single-family house in Queens with his parents and a typically obnoxious older brother. His Grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), whom he idolizes, is often at the house, too, along with his grandmother (Tovah Feldsuh), and a great uncle and aunt.

It’s a noisy, Jewish house filled with exuberant conversation, argument, expectations, and love, but far from perfect. Paul boasts to Johnny that he’s rich, but that is not the case (I don’t think he’s lying so much as seeing the world through his own limited perspective). His father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), does home remodeling and repairs. Mom Esther (Anne Hathaway) is a home-economics teacher who is also on the PTA—she wants to run for the school board. They are trying to become what we used to call assimilated Jews. They have changed their last name, from Grasserstein to Graff, and they want to live out the American dream. It’s important to Paul’s parents that he and his brother become more successful than they are.
“All my hopes are with you and your brother,” Esther tells Paul at one point. No pressure.

Irving is undeniably devoted to his children—he built Paul an elaborate club house in their yard that Johnny marvels over (and later sleeps in when social services tries to take him out of his grandmother’s home). But he has a temper—he’s angry about his lot in life; feels disrespected, overlooked, and he often physically takes out that anger on Paul, who is a disappointment to him. Esther knows about this but does nothing to stop it—in fact, she threatens Paul with “telling your father.” She feels that Paul, with his head in the clouds, could use some tough love.

Neither Irving nor Esther wants Paul to be an artist, which they think is wildly impractical. And they’re not happy about Paul’s friendship with Johnny, especially when the two boys are caught smoking pot together in the boy’s room.

Borrowing money from Grandpa Aaron, they take Paul out of his public school and send him to the same private school his older brother goes to. On his first day of class, Paul meets one of the school’s biggest benefactors, Fred Trump. (Yes, that Fred Trump.) Later, Mary Anne  Trump gives a speech to the assembled children where she tells them that they can achieve greatness, not “because of a handout, but because you earned your way there.” The irony is rich.

Armageddon Time has much to say about race, upward mobility, and the American dream and who can participate in it. When Fred Trump meets Paul, he sizes him up and inquires about his last name. When Paul tells him it was shortened from Grasserstein, something dark and knowing crosses Trump’s face. Yes, it’s difficult to be a Jew in America—then and, alas, now. (As I write this, synagogues in New Jersey received warnings about credible terrorist threats.) But it is more difficult to be a Black person in America.

Paul’s family would describe themselves as liberal. Irving shouts at the TV (“that schmuck!”) whenever Ronald Reagan comes on. Later, he tells Paul that injustice hurts him on a deep level—and we believe him. But at the same time, the Graffs are strivers. They will do whatever it takes to succeed in America, even if that means ignoring and even benefiting from the injustice in the world. (A nice companion to this film might be the podcast, “Nice White Parents,” about the “liberal” parents in NYC who advocated for school integration until it came to their own children’s schools.)

While Irving and Esther let their own deep-seated resentments and all-consuming hopes for their sons cloud their essential decency, Grandpa Aaron is leading a completely righteous life. The suggestion, from Gray, is that because Grandpa saw the effects of anti-Semitism up close—his mother fled from pogroms in Ukraine, eventually landing in America—he has more empathy for the oppressed. He encourages Paul to stand up to his new schoolmates, who casually drop the N-word and disapprove of Paul’s friendship with Johnny. “Be a mensch,” he says. (Yes, that’s the great Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins dropping words like “mensch.”)

I confess that when I saw the trailer for Armageddon Time, I giggled at the copious Yiddish phrases casually being dropped by the likes of Hopkins and Hathaway (at least Jeremy Strong is half Jewish). It almost seemed to border on an SNL skit. But it’s a testament to the power of the film and, frankly, the power of great acting that this didn’t bother me as the film went on. I believed that these characters were real—and, at times, they reminded me of members of my own extended family. Indeed, all the acting is superb, but keep your eye on the two young leads—they give remarkably unaffected performances. Watching them, I felt like I was eavesdropping on a couple of 12-year-old best buds.

Armageddon Time is really something special. It’s the kind of film I might point to when I try to explain why sentimentality is cheap and, ultimately unsatisfying (not to name names but *cough* Belfast). The real nourishment comes from unflinching honesty, served with compassion, insight, and a bit of sadness. In that sense, Armageddon Time is a full meal.