Starring Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Tovah Feldshuh, Ryan Sell, and Anthony Hopkins
As Generation Xers enter the fullness of middle age, many are examining their formative years for perspective on where we are now as a society. James Gray (Ad Astra, Lost City of Z) wrote and directed Armageddon Time, a semi-autobiographical tale about a sensitive boy who has trouble making sense of it. Armageddon Time navigates the currents of familial, generational, racial, and political change in 1980s America in a sobering way.
Paul lives with his family in working-class Queens and attends a public school there. At home, Paul finds his grandfather Aaron’s(Anthony Hopkins) support and wisdom. In school, he finds camaraderie with his only friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb). The differing lives of the two boys are central to the story—Paul, is Jewish, and Johnny, is Black. Both dream of better lives. Paul dreams of being a famous artist, and Johnny wants to join NASA and someday walk on Mars. Paul is the son of a plumber and has a comfortable, albeit conflicted, home life with his two parents and older brother. At the same time, Johnny lives in relative poverty with his invalid Grandmother. Both make gestures of rebellion against the school and the world with very different consequences for the two boys.
Paradoxical relationships surround Paul in this film. “Succession’s” Jeremy Strong (Trial of the Chicago 7, The Big Short) plays a loving but abusive father. Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables, Rachel Getting Married) is the sometimes inattentive, continually frustrated mother. Both parents struggle to understand their youngest son. They rely on Paul’s relationship with his grandfather Aaron, sublimely portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Father, The Two Popes). The latter has a way of relating to Paul that is unique in the family.
James Gray’s light touch with heavy subject matters enables him to tell this story without simplification or self-congratulation.
The family’s immigrant background, the trauma, and the history of their experiences with antisemitism and classism are all delicately included in Paul’s growing sense of the world and his place in it. In one instance he’s told to “play the game” even though the game's not fair. Then in another, his grandfather stresses the importance of standing up for what’s right. Circumstances force Paul to chart his own ethical course between integrity and pragmatism.
Armageddon Time has a 1980s look and feel thanks to the muted tones and slightly grainy texture cinematographer Darius Khondji gives the film. The film further contextualizes the story with the 1980 presidential election (won by Reagan) and with personalities Fred Trump and his daughter Maryanne Trump, hilariously played by Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Zero Dark Thirty).
James Gray and his ensemble have created a memorable, low-key drama that will be a crucial film in his generation’s understanding of itself. Gray’s light touch with heavy subject matter enables him to tell this story without simplification or self-congratulation. The performances by the leads are all nuanced and well-rounded, making even the temperamental father a sympathetic figure. The young lead actors hold their own and deliver subtle, heartfelt characterizations.
If this film doesn't make you uncomfortable, your heart might be in the wrong place.