In Armageddon Time, the central character Paul Graff, played by newcomer Banks Repeta, is a kid who neglects the wisdom of the “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” expression. The boy’s proverbial teeth are well-tended and have likely tasted a silver spoon or two. They attack the fastidious hands of the two generations of former immigrants that came before him and worked hard to regain their beneficial financial comforts.
Outside of some social teasing and a scoop or two of teacher admonishment attending sixth grade at a New York City public school, the Paul we meet has not experienced true hardship or victimization. The boy always has his demographic advantage draped and painted on him from head to toe. Try as it may, Armageddon Time, based on the upbringing of esteemed director James Gray (The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra), is also missing the ideal breadth to fully express legitimate adversity and prejudice.
Armageddon Time is set in the borough of Queens during the fall of 1980 when the nation was on the cusp of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential victory. Unlike his older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) attending private school with a trajectory towards future career successes, the younger Paul is viewed as a slow student and undisciplined troublemaker. Much to the chagrin of his “let me tell you something” and belt-wielding father Irving (Succession Emmy winner Jeremy Strong) and PTA president mother Esther (Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway), Paul has little grand dreams of becoming an artist and falls in love with the work of Wassily Kandinsky he sees on a field trip to The Guggenheim.
Naturally, such an aspiration is seen as nonsense in the Graff household expecting and demanding better. There is an ever-present level of disrespect shuffled between Paul and the adults pressuring him in his life. Ignited every now and then by volatile verbal and physical flashes from Strong and Hathaway, clashes create power struggles fueled by the angst, ignorance, and dishonesty of Paul.
Beyond art, Paul finds whimsical attention in two other places. The first is his respected and wealthy grandfather Aaron, played by two-time Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins in a showy sage role. The elder gentleman dotes on his grandson every chance he gets. Among those his own age, the distracted Paul latches onto a far-less-well-off Black classmate named Johnny, played by fresh face Jaylin Webb, who’s been retained back to sixth grade for poor behavior.
Essentially, Aaron and Johnny, not his parents, are the only people who can reach Paul emotionally in Armageddon Time. The grandfather is seen as a good influence to guide the boy’s wayward moral compass, whereas the more liberating and exciting schoolmate is quickly labeled as the bad influence with his unrefined and unacceptable antics. Heaven forbid a white kid be friends with a Black kid and vice versa, but, alas, that was the era.
When Paul is caught smoking marijuana with Johnny in the school bathroom, his outraged parents pull him out to enroll him in his brother’s private school. The place is an educational nest of earmarking webs of patronage among the future affluent. As fate would have it, the school is backed by real estate developer Fred Trump (character actor John Diehl) and his daughter, Assistant United States Attorney Maryanne Trump (a single and wasted monologue scene cameo from newly-minted Oscar winner Jessica Chastain). Paul’s transfer puts him in an unwelcoming position and severs his bonding time with Johnny.
From a screen presence standpoint, the Aaron and Johnny characters are the only two with vigor worth absorbing your attention. Hopkins is granted an excellent scene where his patriarch confronts his young descendent in hopes of getting through to him about how to support others who don’t have his advantages. It’s a noble moment trying to count as correcting errors, yet it remains on the privileged half of the blurry American Dream our kid cannot see. Once again, all of this is still far from real hardship.
That cinematic favoritism exposes Armageddon Time and that aforementioned mislaid gravity. With all due respect to their difficult history going back centuries, Jewish persecution does not equal Black persecution. Comparing rigged systems, labeling unfair blames, and touting ranges of survivability between one group with every leg up imaginable and another which, all too often, does not even get to stand is borderline egregious and shameful.
Look no further than the portrayal and treatment of Johnny in the film. He’ll drop an exasperation like “I’m tired of taking shit from people” that falls on the deaf ears of everyone in the scene, including someone who is supposed to be a friend. When given several chances, Paul cannot muster the righteous, or even proper, level of loyalty, support, courage, or reciprocity that Johnny extends to him when necessary. A real friend would back your play or cover for you.
By the time the film reaches its ending hinging on the criminal ramifications of shared transgressions between Johnny and Paul, the repetition of those failures threatens to seal fates. Consequences are avoided and spared, thanks to golden parachutes, versus a system of racial prejudices. While the film doesn’t celebrate this gap, it doesn’t help it either.
The sum of Armageddon Time is a meandering film with very little style or ambiance to soak its attempted rhetoric into the viewer. The work of cinematographer Darius Khondji (Uncut Gems) is usually far more interesting than the slow zooms and pensive framing done here. The same can be said for a nearly absent score track from composer Christopher Spellman. Rarely has a film with these kinds of talking points been rendered so ineffectual.
Like it or not, we’ve reached a point where people are measured by their actions to be either an ally, advocate, or accomplice amidst firebrand social issues. The merit of this story of formative failure can only be truly assessed by whether this teenage proxy of the filmmaker himself turned out alright after the credits roll and history continued forward. One can learn by failure only if they learn. Like the main character, the submission of the movie itself does not put forth enough fight for earned growth. If Armageddon Time is the sum total of James Gray’s regret, then it is a weak indictment that comes off little better than someone saying “I had a Black friend once.”