Leave it to James Gray, one of the finest directors we have, to craft an epic period piece about race, religion, parenting, the failures of the school system, and the transition from childhood to adulthood in a memoir full of sixth-grade memories. The superb Armageddon Time is just the latest drama by a filmmaker who has decided to turn back the clock and explore his own upbringing. Many of these attempts can be as self-serving and egotistical as they sound, but in recent years there’s been a boom of well-made films that blend fact and fiction into captivating storytelling. Gray’s might be the best of them all.
After taking us to space with Ad Astra, Gray sets his feet back on more familiar terrain; the gritty working-class borough of 1980 New York. It’s here that we meet 11-year-old Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a rebellious, trouble-making kid with dreams (like Gray himself) of becoming an artist. This is not welcome news to Paul’s hard-working plumber of a father Irving (Jeremy Strong, doing his best De Niro), and his practical, socially-cautious mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), who preach that he needs to get his head out of the clouds. Encouraging Paul to keep his dream alive is his grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins, as vital and touching as ever. Truly Oscars worthy), a Ukrainian immigrant who has experienced the worst hardships man has to offer. All he wants is what’s best for the boy. That’s what everyone says they want.
Armageddon Time isn’t so simple as parents wanting that’s best for their son. Gray weaves in complex moral dillemas of race, class, and more. The Graffs cling to their Jewish culture and heritage; they recognize the rising tide of racism and, let’s be honest, stupidity, with the Presidential election of Ronald Reagan. But they are prone to simple prejudices as well, in particular towards Paul’s best friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), one of the very few Black kids at the rundown public school he attends. Johnny doesn’t have much, just one ailing grandmother to look after him, and the school system lets him down at every turn. The deck is stacked against Johnny; Paul has every opportunity, but again, it’s not so simple.
With an exquisitely delicate touch, Gray explores the inequities that so many in positions of power let slide out of comfort or fear. The Graffs fit into this in an untenable position, recognizing the growing Anti-Semitism in the country while fighting to stay ahead of the Blacks and others who could keep them from climbing the social heirarchy. Again, the Graffs want what’s best, even if that means others get the short end of the stick. Only Aaron, in the film’s most extraordinarily tender scene, encourages Paul to stand up for the plight of those less fortunate than him, because the simple truth is you never know when the tables will be reversed.
In a lesser filmmakers hands Armageddon Time would be sappy, saccharine, and an exercise in the relieving of white guilt. But it’s not that at all. Gray doesn’t outright attack anyone in particular, but the portrayals of the Trump clan, who attended the all-white private academy Paul was eventually forced into, is pretty harsh. While there’s no sign of the Donald, his father Fred Trump (John Diehl) and sister MaryAnn (Jessica Chastain) show up with all of their privilege waving arrogantly. It’s no secret where Donald learned his racist, criminal ways. They were imparted on him by his family, from his teachers, by his classmates, and from the culture slowly corroding the country through the political system.
Throughout Armageddon Time I kept fearing Gray would jump ahead in time to an adult Paul, to see the result of the hard lessons he had learned. Fortunately, that never happens. Not only is Repta one of the best child actors I’ve ever seen carry a film like this on his shoulders, and opposite such incredible co-stars, but Gray is so comfortable at exploring all of the thorny aspects of his memories. This isn’t a typical coming-of-age story, where the transition from boy into man is so clear cut. The decisions that will come to define us are as cataclysmic as the title suggests, but they are small, almost inconsequential moments that we barely notice until it’s too late. Gray’s delicate powerhouse of a film is his most personal, and I fear that will prevent it from being the film that finally gets him the stateside attention he’s long deserved. To be honest, if his bigger, more “mainstream” work couldn’t do it by now, nothing will. But to those who seek out Armageddon Time they will find a filmmaker at the height of his powers.
Armageddon Time opens on October 28th.