James Gray | 1hr 54min
Early on in Armageddon Time, a conversation unfolds around the Graff family dinner table touching on the horrors experienced by Jews in the Holocaust. For grandparents Aaron and Mickey, the memory of Nazis and concentration camps is just as raw in the present as it was during World War II, imparting them with a sensitive wisdom and offering a compassionate counterpoint to the social and political divisions of 80s America. Twelve-year-old Paul’s inability to grasp the horrific reality of their adversity is more revealing of his childlike innocence than any purposeful ignorance, though over the few months that he befriends and gets into mischief with his African American classmate, Johnny, surprising parallels of survivor’s guilt begin to emerge in his own life. For James Gray, this is a deeply personal story of his own pre-adolescence in Reagan’s conservative America, learning to recognise where privilege and injustice intersect across boundaries of class and race.
The first suggestion of some imbalance between the treatment of the two boys comes on the first day of sixth grade. Both are troublemakers, but where Paul’s mucking-up comes from a lightness of spirit, Johnny’s indicates a wearied disillusionment with authority, leading him to deliberately antagonise the teacher who has forced him to repeat a school year. When they are each called up to the front of the class to clean the blackboard, Paul’s silent disruption of the class is caught by the eyes on the back of the teacher’s head – except it ends up being Johnny who cops the blame.
Thus begins a troubled friendship between these young boys, the tone of which is set by their initial interaction. Later when they are caught smoking weed in the school toilets, the adults in their lives attempt to pull them away from each other, though the fact that one simply ends up at a strait-laced private school while the other becomes homeless says it all. Gray walks a tricky line here in validating the experiences of both children while recognising the inherent inequality of their troubles, though this does not simply become another reductive tale of white people learning about racism. Instead, Armageddon Time is an act of atonement for Gray, recognising the Jewish experience of escaping an awful fate that others ultimately fell to, whether by sheer luck or one’s own inherited privilege.
With teachers at school beating prudish moral standards over Paul’s head, and his own parents safeguarding the entitlement that keeps him from facing any real consequences, it often seems like Aaron is the only presence in his life who sees the system of oppression for what it is. “The game is rigged,” he laments to his grandson, all too familiar with how prejudice can overrun cultures and destroy an entire race of people.
The coldness that Anthony Hopkins displayed in his earlier film roles has given way to a gentle warmth in more recent years, and it is upon that kindness which Gray pivots Paul’s journey, driving him towards an empathy and self-awareness that so many others around him lack. Beyond the archival footage of Reagan, Fred and Maryanne Trump also make appearances in cameos from John Diehl and Jessica Chastain, and with role models like these influencing an entire generation of America’s children, it would be too easy to send a child like Paul down a similar path of selfish individualism.
Given how much his home life conforms to the typical image of an affluent 80s New Yorker family, this seems like a very real possibility as well. His parents may be Democrats with a loathing of conservative politics, but they are far more likely to participate in those stifling institutions which benefit their social status than question them, and around them Gray’s production design forms a bubble of opulent, indulgent hypocrisy. The patterned wallpaper, old-fashioned lamps, and electric chandeliers that shed a gorgeous yellow light across retro interiors may not reach the stylistic heights of his previous period pieces, but the lavish curation of such splendid décor tells its own story of class disparity when juxtaposed against Johnny’s homelessness. In exteriors, Gray lends a light, sepia filter to scenes set against authentic New York parks and buildings, infusing these landmarks with a sentimentality that can only exist in the eyes of a child as spoilt and sheltered as Paul.
What Armageddon Time ultimately adds up to is a battle over the souls of America’s children, set right on the eve of a presidential election that would dictate the culture of an entire decade. The world may be more complex than Paul can comprehend at this age, but such staunch class divisions are nothing new for older generations of Europeans who have seen it all before. Prejudice is not an anomaly in human nature, but rather cycles in waves throughout history, and by reflecting on this moment of realisation in his own childhood, Gray remorsefully reaches out to those whose hardships he passively let pave the way for his own privilege.
Armageddon Time is currently playing in theatres.