Growing up as a Jewish boy in early 1980s New York, Paul Graff tries his best to pursue his artistic ambitions against the behest of his structured parents, Esther and Irving. He soon befriends Johnny, a similarly adventurous child who becomes the subject of bullying and mistreatment due to his identity as a black child. Paul and Johnny become instant companions, although their friendship faces restrictions defined by the challenging times in Armageddon Time.
As the latest effort from Ad Astra auteur James Gray, Armageddon Time arrives as the writer/director’s most personal endeavor yet – a feature almost exclusively from the perspective of Gray’s adolescent upbringing. Many see filmmaking passion projects like Armageddon as nostalgia-gazing walks down memory lane (Belfast and Steven Spielberg’s latest The Fabelmans). For Gray, his introspective look back takes a decidedly different turn.
Armageddon Time is not a warm retrospective. Instead, Gray crafts a painful, guilt-ridden observation of a harrowing coming-of-age chapter in his life. The results showcase a profoundly personal and thematically brazen effort that reckons with the characters’ – and our society’s – uncomfortable truths.
The film isn’t all doom and gloom. Gray eases viewers in with buoyant recollections of unkempt youth. At school, Paul and Johnny share a deeply-felt camaraderie defined by their affable personalities and carefree enthusiasm. When returning home, Paul enjoys his caring grandfather’s undying support while indulging in the rich spoils provided by his parents.
Gray paints these dynamics with an enchanting optimism. His camera, while well-tempered in its stylistic imprint, delicately conveys the joyful exuberance of a time when every dream in life seems attainable. Gray’s naturalistic screenplay also unearths endearing dynamics, showcasing an array of def dialogue exchanges and richly defined characters that come to life onscreen.
As the narrative unravels, Armageddon Time evolves into a far more complex affair. Paul and Johnny eventually separate after some innocent troublemaking, with Paul’s parents enforcing a strict ban due to growing concerns about Johnny and his nature. While race isn’t implicitly stated as a factor, the uncomfortable bigotry lingers in the background like a haunting spectrum.
It would be easy for Armageddon Time to paint a simplified depiction of racial disparity, but Gray never settles for easy answers. He keenly analyzes how Paul’s Jewish family and Johnny’s black identity share some kinship in their history of enduring bigotry. While some might think their shared experiences would unite them, Paul’s parents ultimately reverse the vitriol they endured back at the world around them. They adopt a vicious, survival-of-the-fittest attitude, showcasing closeted racial undertones and an unkempt aggressive streak masked by their existence as liberal everymen.
At the heart of Armageddon Time, Gray poignantly depicts how prejudice exists as a transformative force – a negative energy that infects everyone involved with an inhumane sense of distrust and apathy towards one another. This concept is all the more effective through framing the narrative from Paul’s wistful worldview. The optimistic child weathers a coming-of-age trial by fire, gradually losing his innocence as he’s exposed to the unjust realities defined in our divisive climate.
A skilled all-star cast helps unearth these dynamics effectively onscreen. Young star Banks Repeta displays ability far beyond his years as Paul, imbuing nuance and raw naturalism in his depiction of a personable youth exposed to the world’s callous cruelty. Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong balance affection and menace in their portrayals of Paul’s well-meaning yet damaging parents, while Anthony Hopkins steals every scene as Paul’s supportive and sincere grandfather. The quartet of actors forms an impressively lived-in family dynamic that becomes equally arresting and disturbing for viewers to unpack.
I found myself entranced by Armageddon Time, but the film ultimately trips from one unavoidable flaw – its depiction of Johnny. I understand that Gray defines his feature from the unknowing perspective of his youthful protagonist Paul. Still, Johnny lacks the perspective and dimension needed to humanize his painful plight. A well-delivered performance from Till star Jaylin Webb can only do so much to bolster a character straddled by didactic dialogue exchanges and a lack of screentime. I know the film intends to view Johnny as another disenfranchised cog in a broken system, but the execution can’t help feeling too undefined for its own good.
While it doesn’t achieve perfect marks, Armageddon Time embeds itself in messy social dynamics with introspection and painful relevance. I continue to be a fan of Gray’s incisive and uncomforting perspective and remain excited to see where the filmmaker goes from here.
Armageddon Time is now playing in theaters.
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