Growing up in a Jewish family, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) in Armageddon Time is a coming-of-age drama set in early 1980’s Queens, New York, is a child on the first day of the new school year.
With trouble focusing but an interest in art, Paul immediately causes trouble in class, quickly forms close bonds with an African-American fellow troublemaker while in detention. Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a bright kid interested in being an astronaut, is repeating the school year due to his own lack of focus.
At home, Paul is brought up by his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) and father, Irving (Jeremy Strong) who raise him with a carrot until it is inevitably time for the stick, or belt. Paul maintains a close and much more respectful relationship with his grandfather Aaron (Sir Anthony Hopkins) who teaches morality and encourages his art enthusiasm. As Paul and Johnny both act up, their individual circumstances unfairly send them down differing paths. Paul struggles with the unfairness of this and tries to find his place within the trials and tribulations of the American dream.
A beautifully shot period piece featuring a New York which no longer exists, the amazing Darius Khondji who I have been a fan of since Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, works his usual magic here. But this isn’t a film about empty nostalgia and writer director James Gray does well to avoid this.
A deeply personal and semi biographical work by Gray, the film is a reflection of his own life and his desire to work in the creative arts. I cannot say how authentic it actually is, although true life has clearly had influences throughout. The story that Paul‘s grandfather tells is of what the Jews faced in Ukraine, leading to their eventual immigration to the USA.
This adds to the film’s strongest asset of chemistry between the actors portraying the Graff family. First and foremost is the brilliant Anthony Hopkins, fresh off his Oscar win, in a role which may earn him another. One couldn’t ask for a more ideal grandfather and Hopkins radiates warmth whenever he is on screen. With Grandfather Aaron sharing a special connection with his grandson, their scenes together are paramount to the heart of the entire picture.
Anne Hathaway shows her versatility again playing this loving maternal figure, while Jeremy Strong delivers in a role we’re not used to seeing him play. I loved how the film is viewed through Paul‘s eyes so Irving can almost seem bipolar. alternating between joviality and wrath. But as an adult viewing the film, we can see he’s just a regular guy struggling under this role of ‘dad’. Both are so great in the film and work well with Banks Repeta’s Paul. In fact, I’m disappointed there isn’t more of them one on one. Hathaway and Hopkins share some great scenes together and I just wish I could say the same for Hathaway and Strong.
Finally, the two child actors completely blew me away. A star making performance for Repeta who effortlessly leads and keeps up with multiple Oscar and Emmy award winners. Likewise, Webb is heartbreaking as someone facing many more hardships. A child just like Paul with dreams of his own but not fortunate enough to be able to pursue them as easily. If Paul can become an artist with the correct guidance, why shouldn’t Johnny become an astronaut?
Here lie the trickier themes of the film. Dealing with various inequalities but also the desire of some for “a seat at the table”, as Paul‘s grandmother Mickey (Tovah Feldshuh) puts it. I did largely appreciate the multifaceted manner in which these topics were approached. One example would the holocaust being laughed about at the family dinner table by some. We then see survivors Aaron and Mickey looking down, as to them this no laughing matter. At the same dinner, Mickey without a hint of irony bemoans that Paul is going to school with “blacks”.
At other times, the film is much more on the nose. One climactic scene in particular feels crafted in such a blunt way to have a character tell the audience what to think. Some might nod along and agree with the message, but it feels ham-fisted, as if Gray lacked faith in his audience to see the blatant injustice on their own.
This is James Gray’s own story and when Gray shows his hand, it is clear how he wants us to feel rather than trusting the audience. At these points, Armageddon Time is at its weakest and can feel self-indulgent as a result. This is also a film which showcases amazing performances from a multi-generational cast of talented actors. It is recommended for Sir Anthony Hopkins’ part alone, but also that of its two brilliant young stars.