Armageddon Time Review – An Emotional Story of Ongoing Disconnect in American Society

James Gray’s autobiographical film Armageddon Time refuses to indulge in nostalgia and takes off any rose-tinted glasses to tell the story of a the eleven-year-old Paul Graff waking up to the reality of both the struggles of his integrated Jewish family and the racial prejudice perpetuated by even those who apparently lean liberal.

The year is 1980 and over the space of two months we experience the world through Paul’s (Banks Repeta – astonishing) eyes. The family watch Ronald Reagan in an interview with Jim Bakker making reference to theirs being the generation being one who may see Armageddon. Ostensibly liberal the Graff family are not Reagan supporters; yet in their own way they have reached a point of privilege that they unconsciously make racist statements.

Paul begins 6th form at a public school in Queens. He is immediately picked out as a troublemaker by his teacher Mr Turkeltraub (Andrew Polk) and bonds with the only Black student in the class, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb – one of the most mature perfomances from a young actor) who has been long targeted by Turkeltraub. Johnny is slightly older than Paul having been kept back a year. His home life is unstable; he lives with his grandmother who is suffering dementia and his goal is to find his stepbrother who is in the air force and eventually join NASA. It’s a dream that Paul relates to because more than anything he wants to be an artist, a pursuit his parents Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong) discourage because they want him to succeed in a more substantial career. Only Paul’s beloved Grandfather Aaron (a brilliant Anthony Hopkins) sees Paul’s dreams as worth chasing.

Aaron Rabinowitz is a Jewish immigrant whose parents brought him through Ellis Island (shades of Gray’s The Immigrant). Aaron’s mother’s family was slaughtered by Cossacks in Ukraine before she as a fifteen-year-old girl escaped across Europe and eventually made it to Liverpool. As Aaron tells Paul these stories his young mind sees them as horrors from a distant time – frightening but not truly connected to his reality. His reality is that he has a stable home, an annoying older brother, and his mother is the head of the PTA meaning he can get out of trouble.

Nonetheless, trouble is precisely what he gets into. He steals money from Esther’s jewellery box to ensure that Johnny can go on an excursion to The Guggenheim Museum in NYC. Cinematographer Darius Khondji bathes the city in a soft autumnal light and when the two boys skip out of the excursion to wander in Central Park and play pinball it’s the only time that Gray allows for something reverent to the city to be shown. The playfulness of the day is soon cut short when riding the underground some older teens laugh at Johnny’s passion for NASA.

Johnny’s rebellious attitude further foments and soon he and Paul are caught smoking a joint in the school bathrooms. For Paul that means angry disapproval from his mother and a belting from his father. For Johnny that means being moved to “special classes” and social services. The decision is made that Paul will be sent to his brother’s private school Forest Manor Preparatory (in reality The Kew-Forest School). Paul is an uneven and dreamy student and overhears his parents arguing that he may be indeed a “little slow.”

Paul soon realises that there is a hierarchy at the private school. His first interaction with anyone is with major donor Fred Trump (John Diehl) who asks him what kind of name Graff is. Paul naively responds that it is a shortening of his Jewish family name Greizerstein and Fred (father of Donald and Maryanne) can barely contain his contempt. The students of Forest Manor are assembled for an assembly where Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) then a US Attorney makes a speech about working hard and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, as if she never had any advantage as the daughter of a massively wealthy man. The kids lap it up – this school is for children who will all have a seat at the table whether it be in finance, law, or politics.

Paul seemingly makes new friends and does his best to fit in but when Johnny spots him in the yard he tries to end the conversation as quickly as possible especially when his classmates call Johnny slurs and laugh that Paul would have a Black person at his house.

Paul confides to Grandpa Aaron that he feels he is letting down his friend. Aaron, who has faced a lifetime of prejudice tells him he must learn to be a mensch and stand up against racism, and Paul does try but soon learns the system is inherently stacked against Johnny and his own middle-class background is a protective shield.

As a coming-of-age film, Armageddon Time is deeply affecting. Paul’s gradual realisation of who he is, and who his parents are takes the whole of the two months that it is set over. Paul has a lot to learn but in seeing systemic racism and realising what his own family went through to make a comfortable life in America begins to awaken his young consciousness.

Reagan wins the election (the clever interweaving of Trump and Reagan is not accidental) and Paul’s family bemoans the new president. A poignant final shot of Paul walking away from the metaphorical table of success makes Armageddon Time a fine examination of Gray’s own goals but also his refusal to blend into the conservative landscape if the cost is integrity.

Armageddon Time is an apology; Paul is not a perfect misunderstood child – he’s often brattish and rebellious even when there is nothing specific to rebel against. Gray has undertaken the perspective of memory to relive the era through a child’s eye but with adult retrospection. What he has found is that he could and should have done better, but as a child how many of us do? Armageddon Time is an emotional film but eschews sentiment because Gray isn’t trying to sell a time of childhood miracles, but a time (ongoing) of disconnect in the fabric of American society.

Director: James Gray

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta

Writer: James Gray

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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