As a budding teen in a middle of nowhere farmland, a buddy and I once pilfered an adult magazine from his older, mechanic cousin’s garage where scores of such rags were stacked next to greasy tarps, industrial-sized wrenches and pinup calendars of buxom nymphs in cutoffs and tool belts. With full intention of returning, we “borrowed” the girlie mag, stashing it in a dilapidated, lean-to fort in a nearby woods where it was ultimately ruined by rain and snow, unable to be salvaged. Wracked with heavy guilt for weeks over the theft, I strongly considered confessing my crime, a double whammy reveal of stealing, sure, but also the embarrassment of libidinal teenage curiosity. Clearly in retrospect the episode was plainly trivial, a minor morality play set in a heartland cornfield. Such is the adolescent mind and heart.
My childhood culpability in the incident seems that of a sheltered rube compared to the experiences that shaped writer-director James Gray, who comes of age during the same era his largely autobiographical Armageddon Time as a pre-teen New Yorker sorting out life lessons on fairness, race and family. Gray, who shares a formative chapter in the film that depicts a loss of innocence—here about the way the world works for those who have, and do not have, privilege—has made his most personal and perhaps most accessible film.
Life has a way of ensuring that whatever innocence we carry about the way the world works—or should—is promptly and cynically eradicated early, and Armageddon Time (derived from a phrase coined by Ronald Reagan suggesting the impending fate of America on the international stage) finds Gray in a reminiscence of sorts, reflecting on his eleven-year-old self via surrogate Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a would-be artist in a family of Jewish, middle class liberals circa 1980 Queens.
Picture opens on the first day of sixth grade where Paul meets eventual best friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an African American student held back and with whom he becomes kindred spirts, both deemed class troublemakers by their harried, punitive teacher (Andrew Polk). Gray immediately sets up the picture’s central theme of inequity and privilege, each disciplined differently for the same clownish outbursts.
At home, Paul’s mother Esther (Anne Hathaway, terrific) is a prominent P.T.A. member running for school board, frequently exasperated by her son’s anarchic attitude, while his father Irving, a plumber played beautifully by Jeremy Strong, is the family disciplinarian, speaking softly but wielding a big belt. Their tight-knit, extended family of in-laws, who escaped the Nazis and emigrated to the U.S., includes Paul’s cherished maternal grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), a confidant and dispenser of wisdom, who encourages him to “always be a mensch” to his friends, primarily Johnny, who without a support network and living with his aged grandmother, seems to barely have a chance.
Concerned over his behavior and future opportunities—there’s a wonderful dinner lecture from his grandfather about being Jewish and perhaps limited in American opportunities—Paul’s parents eventually move him from public school to the private prep school Kew Forest, an all-white enclave of conformity that includes board member Fred Trump (John Diehl) and features a tone-deaf assembly speech on “hard work” producing success from Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain in an effective cameo). At Kew Forest, Paul experiences casual antisemitism, a dearth of creativity and significant drift from Johnny, left friendless.
Gray’s impressive picture is, at heart, a discussion of the American dream and its costs—on post-war, traumatized Jewish immigrants and their first generation children, disadvantaged African-American kids who become casualties of the public school system, and, for a laborer like Irving, diminishment in the eyes of Esther’s more successful family, cruising around wealthier neighborhoods dreaming of the big house they’ll own “someday when our ship comes in.”
Yet the film’s true discourse is around the idea of privilege, and a late film delinquent episode involving both boys produces a harsh shock of reality—exactly how the notion of race and advantage benefits some while others have no such accommodations and are left to harsh hand of consequence. After all, as Paul’s father explains, “Life isn’t fair.” You can have a conscience about it, but that won’t help anyone or change anything.
Gray’s insightful screenplay cuts to the heart of a central question—if we are to follow our better angels, be mensches, come to the aid of all in need and often less fortunate and do so with character and ethics—is it wrong to accept advantage when it’s offered to us, even if it may not be to others? Can we accept benefitting when others cannot? What is the cost of doing so?
These non-binary moral questions are summed up in final scene between grandfather and grandson that is simple, direct and perhaps reality—despite the best intentions, things can’t always be helped and you keep fighting and do better the next time. Morals and the reality of the world will always collide, often with agonizing consequences.
Gray is a very particular filmmaker in pace, tone and aesthetic, his noted ambition and vision often trumping drama; I frequently find his always handsomely mounted pictures to be formally measured and slightly arid, requiring a lean in to engage, which is always intellectual. He is never one to indulge in sentiment or manipulation, largely absent from his directorial hierarchy of priorities.
Such removal is amplified by Darius Khondji’s use of shadow; much of the film’s aesthetic appears slightly, and intentionally, underexposed with significant black levels prevalent throughout. Even daylight scenes set in a public park or school classroom favor a noted dimness.
In his New York-set pictures, Gray is frequently on firm footing as in the Russian Jewish mafia tale Little Odessa, drug and police war picture We Own the Night, period immigrant exploitation story The Immigrant (middling) and the Brooklyn set relationship triangle Two Lovers, a fine, complex film. In other and more exotic realms, the filmmaker has ventured, with mixed results, to the Amazon jungle in the real life adventure The Lost City of Z and to the vast (inner) reaches of introspective sci-fi in Ad Astra. In Armageddon Time, he has created perhaps his richest, most substantive drama.