Armageddon Time film review: Trump and Reagan set the backdrop for a flawed but interesting family drama
Director: James Grey. Cast: Banks Repeta, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Jaylin Webb, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Sell. 15, 115 minutes.
I’m convinced that James Gray doesn’t make films out of desire but out of compulsion. Behind the thorny intimacy of Two lovers (2008) or the cobweb dreams of dead explorers in The Lost City Z (2016) lies a desperate search for answers to ugly questions. in the Ad Astra (2019), Brad Pitt’s astronaut travels to the farthest reaches of the solar system to find his father, only to be told to go home and leave dad alone. How does one even begin to process such a profound rejection?
gray’s latest, Armageddon period, is a defective work. But it shows the filmmaker at his most vulnerable as he turns the camera back on himself and asks: Of all the paths that have brought me here, how many were created through my own privilege? The question itself isn’t ugly, but the answer tends to make the asker feel that way. Gray, more committed to truth than ego, continues anyway. Though he’s not fully equipped for the task, that sense of futility has some value.
We are in Queens, New York City. The year is 1980. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a surrogate for Gray’s childhood self, lives at the center of a large and vibrant Jewish family. They spoil and abuse him in equal measure. He believes he is impervious to real problems since, as he regularly boasts, his mother (Anne Hathaway) is President of the Parent Teachers Association. His grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) spoils him and encourages his artistic impulses. But he’s also the boy who runs to the bathroom, shaking, when he hears the steady thump of his father’s (Jeremy Strong) climbing the stairs, knowing what violence is coming next.
Paul, being punished in class for drawing a caricature of his teacher, begins to bond with fellow student Johnny (Jaylin Webb). Johnny is black and lives with his grandmother who is ill. Paul doesn’t believe in the social disadvantages of his new friend. But there comes a point when their fates diverge Armageddon period shows the tricky reality of what it means to be both the oppressor and the oppressed. Paul’s wisdom allows him to dream, take risks, start trouble and learn at his own pace. But his grandfather, whose mother fled the pogroms in Ukraine, stands by him with the soft refrain: “Never forget the past, because you never know when they will come looking for you.”
The Graffs used to be the Grassersteins. Beneath her liberal frankness, clenched jaws and nervous looks betray a drive for self-preservation. Their racism seeps through in coded digs. Gray’s inclusion of both Ronald Reagan’s presidential election and Paul’s clashes with the Trump family (a detail that comes straight from the director’s life) alerts his audience to what happens when the denial of privilege becomes a weapon around communities to incite against each other.
However, Gray’s film is busy – too busy – digging into its protagonist’s sad, confused, and guilty head to find fuller clarity. His camera remains steady and intimate while Christopher Spelman’s humming score captures the full mushroom cloud of a child’s inner shame. In a key scene, Aaron urges Paul to stand up for guys like Johnny “to be human.” Hopkins, as wonderful as ever, says the phrase with absolute, clear-eyed sincerity. But what does “being human” actually mean in practice? The person to ask would be Johnny, of course, but Gray deliberately keeps us at a distance in order to remain true to his protagonist’s short-sightedness. It’s also, I think, a tacit admission that Gray doesn’t know what his answer would be anyway. As imperfect as Armageddon period is, the director’s honesty is something to appreciate.
Armageddon Time hits theaters November 18th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/armageddon-time-review-uk-release-b2226313.html Armageddon Time film review: Trump and Reagan set the backdrop for a flawed but interesting family drama