Film Review: Armageddon Time
Director: James Gray
RT Features and MadRiver Pictures
In Theaters: 11.04
The semi-autobiographical feature has become a major trend among top-tier directors, and Armageddon Time desperately wants to be counted among them. It certainly qualifies as semi-autobiographical, though to call James Gray a top-tier director is a bit of stretch.
Armageddon Time centers around Paul Graff (Banks Repeta, The Black Phone), a boy growing up in Queens, New York. in the early 1980s. Paul is a bit of an odd duck, a free-spirited and artistic soul with mediocre grades and a tendency to goof off, which leads to a lot of tension with his short-tempered father, Irving (Jeremy Strong, Succession).
Paul’s mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), acts as his defender up to a point, though rarely does she truly listen to him; for his part, Paul spends much of his time antagonizing her. Paul’s closest relationship is with his grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), a Holocaust survivor who seems to be the only one who understands Paul.
When Paul gets in trouble at school for smoking pot with his new friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb, The Wonder Years, Till), there seems to be as much concern from everyone that Paul is palling around with a Black boy as anything else, and strings are pulled to move him into a private school overseen by prominent New York attorney Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain).
Armageddon Time is a serious-minded film that sets out to make a pointed commentary on the pursuit of the American Dream, the shackles of capitalism and class systems and the ways that fixation on a brighter future too often means a dark and dismal present. All of these points come across, though the focus on the dark and dismal aspect is so omnipresent and overpowering that it’s easy to lose anything else beyond the director’s insistence on bludgeoning his audience with the film’s bleakness. Gray (We Own The Night, Ad Astra), who wrote the screenplay along with directing, is laser focused on not giving us a rose-colored trip down memory lane, and there’s a lot about the commitment to portraying the less idyllic elements of childhood—as well as the ’80s—that I admired.
There’s little in the way of shading or nuance, however, and there’s a heavy-handed sense of self importance pervading the film. It’s refreshing to see a film that touches on the devastating and lasting damage that the Reagan era had on middle class families and race relations, and I’d love to give Armageddon Time credit for going there.
However, the constraints of the story require everything to be presented through the lens of a 12 year old’s recollections of what his parents and grandparents are saying and watching on television—the film’s title is taken from a ridiculously manipulative and pandering moment in a Reagan interview—and as such, those who don’t already subscribe to these views are unlikely to be persuaded by cursory connections and and a lot of worried, wringing of hands.
The acting on display is strong, with Repeta and Webb giving easily the best performances because they have the best characters to work with, though Hathaway’s immersion in her character without it ever feeling over the top is impressive work. Hopkins shines, and his one-on-one moments with Repeta provide the only successful moments of sweetness—a sequence set in Paul’s imagination falls flat, as does a non sequitur cutaway to Johnny and his grandmother, which is a nice character moment but clashes badly with the established narrative structure.
Strong is given the most problematic character and is also the most intent on making a big impression. He manages to do sporadically, especially in one memorable sequence of vulnerability when he opens to his two sons about his fears and shortcomings. The performance as a whole is still uneven, hampered by dialogue that is frequently too on the nose for its own good. Webb is arguably the standout and gets the most compelling and unforgettable moment in the film.
Armageddon Time is by no means a complete failure, though it’s far too caught up in its own self-congratulatory pretense of being seen as a “serious film” and too often forgets that it still needs to be a good one. There are plenty of moments of noble effort to be seen, but they don’t connect into a strong story. As a whole, the movie left me frustrated, cold and unimpressed. –Patrick Gibbs