Featuring an excellent cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Armageddon Time is James Gray’s deeply personal – and at times emotionally raw – coming-of-age film set in New York City.
After heading to the jungle and outer space for his last two films, director James Gray has returned to New York City (where he set all his films before The Lost City of Z) for his eighth feature, Armageddon Time. It’s a deeply personal project for Gray, who sets it in his home of Flushing, Queens and bases it on his experiences growing up in a Jewish household, the struggles with his parents and his close relationship with his beloved English grandfather. The result is an almost-autobiographical coming-of-age film that becomes an emotionally raw film. All whilst using the 1980 election to explore the themes of ever-present racism.
In the fall of 1980, as America is gearing up to choose between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan for President, Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta) is starting sixth grade. At home, he talks back to his mother, PTA president Esther (Anne Hathaway), and handyman father Irving (Jeremy Strong). The only one who seems to get through to him is grandpa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), who Paul often confides in. Meanwhile, at school, Paul is an unruly class clown who bonds with a Black student named Johnny (a quietly impressive Jaylin Webb) but often gets into trouble with his teacher. One incident in the bathroom leads to Paul’s parents sending him to a private school against his will. But Paul and Johnny have big dreams; the former wants to be an artist, the latter an astronaut for NASA. Could they still make their dreams a reality by running away to Florida? Doing so will involve an Apple computer from Paul’s school.
Armageddon Time’s name comes from a 1979 reggae song covered by The Clash and reflects the nuclear war that presidential candidate Reagan will likely herald. However, that title is mainly from Paul’s perspective – if you were 12 and suffered the losses he experiences here, you would think it is the end of the world too. The film sees its main character go through a series of great upheavals and culture shocks over the autumn months. The private school he goes to is all-white, with students who chant for Reagan and listen to a talk from a Trump family member (a cameo that I won’t spoil but is perfectly cast). And in the playground, Paul is troubled but silent when a group of kids casually use a racist slur. This racism has been around him the whole time, at public school or even at home. It’s just now that he feels this helpless.
But Paul isn’t completely guiltless, often being cruel to his mother and stealing money from her jewellery box. Whilst he does so for a selfless reason (helping Johnny go on a school trip to the Guggenheim Museum), it points to how self-centred he can be. Gray is aware of how flawed Paul is and how contemptible he can be (possibly because the character is so heavily inspired by his childhood). Crucially though, he never loses his perspective, narrow and naïve as it is. What helps is the performance from Michael Banks Repeta – stinging and hurtful in the way only a child can be, but never unsympathetic.
Repeta also has a great rapport with the rest of this cast. Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong are both in standard ‘Jewish parent’ roles but do a lot with them. Hathaway’s Esther can be caring for and sick of Paul’s words, whilst Strong (who blends into his role) is both fun and scary as the father with a ferocious temper. He is angry but with reason, wanting his son to do better than him. But the star turn comes from Anthony Hopkins. His sheer gravitas shines through again as Paul’s kind grandpa, encouraging his artistry and giving him sagely advice. He is the film’s emotional centre, reminding you of your favourite grandparent, and I would be shocked if he doesn’t get some awards love. Furthermore, the cinematography from frequent Gray collaborator Darius Khondji fits the period nicely, using beige and dulled-down colours alongside some careful camera movements.
With Armageddon Time, James Gray eschews nostalgic innocence for a bold film where its young character comes of age in a cold world, where childhood wishes clash with the grime and political tensions of late ‘70s/early ‘80s America. It is a stunning and poignant drama, at times unflinching in the brutal consequences of Paul’s decisions and unawareness. It is certainly unflinching in the realisation he comes to: that life is unfair for some and, although we have the power to speak up about it, most of us don’t. Overall, Armageddon Time is a brilliant, emotionally raw film strengthened by its excellent cast. And for James Gray, his most personal film yet may be one of the highlights of Cannes 2022.
Armageddon Time premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2022 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.