With its misguided heart in the right place, but making all the wrong choices when it comes to executing this story of a young Jewish boy growing up Queens, New York during the 1980s, writer/director James Gray’s barely veiled biographical story Armageddon Time works best when it sticks to being a family story and completely falls to pieces when it tries to examine race relations in his community from the perspective of a teenager. Clearly a very personal story for Gray (We Own the Night, The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra), the film examines the friendship between Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) and his only Black friend, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) and how it shifts when Paul is forced to transfer from their public school to a private school where his older brother goes—a place where minority students are scarce, and anything that isn’t white is feared and met with prejudice.
As hard as he tries to rebel, Paul is largely at the whim of his protective parents Irving (Jeremy Strong) and Esther (Anne Hathaway), but his greatest influence is his elderly grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), who dishes outs sage advice like “If other kids are making fun of your Black friend, speak up,” wanting to discourage the boy from a lifetime of keeping quiet while others are discriminated against openly. Naturally, Grandpa Aaron is also there to give Paul lessons about the Holocaust, which don’t really have much relevance to his life or this film.
Both Paul and Johnny are good kids who seem to have an unnatural ability to find trouble when they’re together, and while Johnny might often be the instigator, Paul is a more-than-willing participant who often has the resources to carry out a plan, including the film’s climactic heist of a single computer from Paul’s school, an idea that is completely his. The two want to sell it to get money to take a trip down south together to get away from their families, but they are caught and thanks to a little luck and a handyman father who once helped out the arresting officer with a plumbing emergency, Paul learns his most valuable lesson: let the Black kid take the fall for your crime because he has less to lose. Now maybe you understand why I have issues with this movie’s warped lessons.
Aside from the deeply flawed ethics lesson of Armageddon Time, the film is also one of Gray’s least interesting works as a visual artist. When I consider The Lost City of Z or Ad Astra, I can easily recall a half-dozen truly beautiful sequences if not more. But here, it feels like the visuals are a secondary thought, which is a huge mistake considering the themes he prioritizes instead. Still, I appreciated most of the performances, especially Hathaway’s turn as a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown who is fighting to keep strong for the sake of her family, especially Paul, who seems to fight her at every turn. And Hopkins is incapable of being bad, but he isn’t especially convincing as the Jewish grandfather, and I wasn’t as pulled into his scenes with Paul as I’m guessing Gray would have liked.
But none of the messages about friendship, family, or the fruitless chase for the American Dream really seem to mean much considering how tactically askew Gray’s messages about race become at times. When one of your best sequences involves Assistant U.S. Attorney Maryanne Trump (an unexpected cameo from Jessica Chastain), an alumni of Paul’s elitist private school, giving a speech putting down government handouts, with her proud father Fred Trump (John Diehl) standing to the side watching her, I think you have to assume something is broken within the inner-workings of your film.
Armageddon Time is now playing theatrically.
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