Armageddon Time

Armageddon Time ★★★★½

After exploring the Amazon (The Lost City of Z) and outer space (Ad Astra), James Gray returns to New York City, the setting of all his previous films, with the 1980-set Armageddon Time. Revisiting the Queens neighborhood where Gray grew up, this immediately essential coming-of-age drama excavates from the filmmaker’s own past a powerfully observed, deceptively expansive chronicle of the American moral crisis. Set on the eve of Reagan’s America, as the presidential candidate warned of Armageddon ahead for a generation, Armageddon Time also references through its title a dub reggae cover by The Clash, released in 1979. And yet Armageddon Time differs from Gray’s past work with an anecdotal, initially humorous tone.

It’s warm in its depiction of a time and place where Gray once felt the exhilaration of discovery, but the filmmaker is canny enough to underline all the warmth of what he remembers with painful kernels of truth that constitute a reckoning with what he didn’t see or couldn’t yet comprehend. (After a career of his making films about complicated father figures, learning that Gray’s own beat him with a belt feels worthy of note, though resonant as well is Gray’s on-going fascination with tracing his tragic but sentimental family sagas the outline of a more complex socioeconomic portrait; in applying this narrative design to his own past, the filmmaker has emerged with what feels like both a deeply personal exorcism and the weary acceptance of a burden that won’t lift.

Introducing the film at Cannes, the filmmaker described Armageddon Time as directly autobiographical, with the aloof sixth-grader at its center, Paul (newcomer Banks Repeta), serving as Gray’s stand-in and his rambunctious home life approximating Gray’s own. All too familiar with socioeconomic layers of privilege and racism that allow only some to succeed, and only ever at the expense of others, Paul’s parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) place him in private school — a decision co-signed by his Jewish-immigrant grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). Paul’s friendship with a Black classmate from public school (Jaylin Webb) is challenged by this choice, as their respective identities and family histories place the children on different sides of a widening chasm between classes. Without the rose-tinted glasses often brandished by directors making cine-memoirs, especially as the film’s pieces snap into place during its emotionally pulverizing final third, Gray’s film eulogizes the end of childhood innocence, mulling survivor’s guilt as an individual experience and an inherited cultural weight. What would it mean to be a mensch, Paul wonders by the end, in a world where so few good men survive?

Block or Report

Isaac liked these reviews