Occasionally we all need the reminder that the American Dream isn’t programmed for everyone. There is, perhaps, no greater vehicle for this statement than our children and our oldest generation. The last couple of years seem primed for directors grappling with their childhood trauma, whether it be Kenneth Branaugh’s Belfast or Spielberg’s upcoming The Fablemans, but there’s an aspect to each entry in this canon so far that deals with the cloying dream of escaping to America and the bitter reality that some were met with. Armageddon Time is a quiet, shattering look at what this means for different types of families and different types of situations. His previous film, Ad Astra, dealt with the man’s issues with his father. This time he’s expanded to look at what exactly caused some of those issues in the first place.
Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a typical movie kid in many ways. He’s artsy, which confuses his teachers and makes them feel uncomfortable. He’s intelligent but unfocused, which makes them frustrated and unwilling to deal with him.He’s Jewish, and that’s an issue in and of itself to many in his world. He’d get a lot more flack if it weren’t for Johnny (Jaylin Webb), the only black kid in his class, and the fact that all misdeeds that aren’t directly witnessed are blamed on the other boy. Johnny has a brother-in-law that works for N.A.S.A. in some capacity, living down south and sending the young boy memorabilia that enthralls Paul as well. Johnny’s life begins to unravel when he and Paul are caught smoking weed in the bathroom, something neither really understood but they thought they’d try anyway. As Johnny’s situation worsens Paul’s gets more complicated, with his father Irving (Jeremy Strong) and mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) sending him to a private school to get him away. Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), Paul’s awesome grandpa, is perhaps the only one that can get through to him. Strap in because you’re going to spend two hours watching this kid learn about different types of racism, prejudice, and hatred during the rise of Ronald Reagan in America and it’s not going to be pretty.
It is, however, beautifully devastating.
Director James Gray has always made very contemplative movies. While the last couple have surrounded themselves in a cloak of masculine angst, Armageddon Time chooses a more family-based approach that involves generational trauma, guilt, and decisions based upon the tiers of privilege granted (and acknowledged). It’s a film about the dangers of complacency, about being angry and frightened of things you refuse to do anything about because of your own fear, and how that can lead to a lifetime of regret. Gray’s always had an affinity for these things, from Ad Astra and its uncaring father to The Lost City of Z and the need of its leads to fill a vacancy in their souls, but this time around he’s exploring what feels autobiographical. It’s not a hard leap to imagine Gray sitting on a bench as his own grandfather recites family tales of death and destruction committed against solely to the fact that they are Jewish, unable to fully grasp the nightmares his family has lived through while considering how to deal with his own.
That traumatic history rears itself in ugly rage. Irving becomes violent and angry at the slightest incursion on his peace, resentful towards the family he works so hard for, while Esther has ambitions that she’ll struggle to realize. These two are an older style of parent, violent and abusive but unsure how else to be while the world does the same to them. Paul takes more after his grandfather, quiet and sweet, but he’s never more than one wrong word away from being struck or strangled by his parents. School is no better, opening on a ceremony led by Fred and Maryanne Trump as they address a room full of white students on the topics of leadership, possession, and their right to success while some young boys quietly pick on the only Jewish kid in the room. These ideas colliding, the privilege of attending a private school while still being reminded that you aren’t like everyone else, extends through Paul’s life to his friend Johnny and we’re all but forced to watch in quiet devastation as each struggles with a different level of hatred.
You’ll watch nothing quite like James Gray’s latest this year. It’s beautiful, ugly, cruel, sweet, and absolutely wonderful. Hopkins is brilliant in his brief but necessary screentime, Hathaway is gripping, and Strong is wonderful, but it’s the quiet and confused friendship between Repeta and Webb’s performances that serves as a perfect emotional core.
Armageddon Time is currently playing in theatres.