In all honesty, this is not a movie I wanted to see. I deliberately pushed Armageddon Time down toward the bottom of my watch list because I was simply not interested in watching a semi-autobiographical movie based on the childhood of writer/director/producer James Grey, especially not when freaking Steven Spielberg has his own semi-autobiographical picture coming out in a few weeks. For the uninitiated, Grey was most recently responsible for The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, two aspiring awards contenders that proved to have no staying power whatsoever.
But then I took a closer look at the movie. It turns out that the film’s title comes from its setting, shortly before the election of one Ronald Reagan to the White House. What’s more, the plot features one Fred Trump and his daughter Maryanne. And I just happened to put this one off until Election Day, at a time when I’m wracked with my own apocalyptic anxieties over this year’s ballot results.
So yeah, we’re absolutely doing this. Let’s go.
We lay our scene in Queens, NYC, circa September of 1980. Banks Repeta plays Paul Graff, a 12-year-old boy on his first day in the sixth grade. He quickly bonds with Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a young black kid who got held back a grade. We’ll come back to them in a minute.
Paul’s mother (Esther, played by Anne Hathaway) is president of the local PTA, with aspirations of running for the district school board. His father (Irving, played by Jeremy Strong) has a respectable career as a handyman of some sort. Then we’ve got Paul’s maternal grandfather (Aaron Rabinowitz, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins), a retired teacher who emigrated to the States in flight from the Nazis. And I suppose I should mention Paul’s older brother (Ted, played by Ryan Sell) who bullies his little brother as siblings often do at that age.
The basic premise here is that Paul is a prodigious young artist, but nobody — with the sole exception of Grandpa Aaron — sees any value or future in his artwork. Basic stuff. But this is where he finds common ground with Johnny the rebellious class clown.
Paul and Johnny are very much alike in that nobody expects anything from them. In Johnny’s case, he’s a poor black kid from the slums, so everyone already treats him like a juvenile delinquent and he doesn’t see any reason to try and disabuse anyone of that preconceived notion. As for Paul, he’s a quirky young kid that nobody’s got any use for because he’s always got his head in the clouds and his nose in his sketchbook, incapable of focusing on more practical matters.
To be clear, these are 12-year-old boys. They’re going to mess around, they’re going to get into trouble, they’re going to talk back to their teachers and parents, that’s what kids do at that age. But there’s a lot more going on here.
For one thing, Paul figures he’s protected because his mother is on the PTA and he comes from a stable middle-class family — as far as Paul knows, that means his mother owns the entire school and his family is super-rich. As for Johnny, he knows that nobody cares what he does one way or the other, and he figures Paul is protected because he’s a white kid with rich and powerful parents.
In other words, these kids (understandably so, at that age) don’t really grasp the concept of consequences. They’re still at the age when they think they know everything and nothing in their world could possibly go wrong in any lasting way. More to the point, they don’t understand anything about how they could be affected by politics of the greater world in which they’re living. This despite the fact that Johnny is a textbook victim of systemic racism and Paul is a Jewish kid descended from literal Holocaust survivors.
(Side note: For those keeping score, we’ve got a nostalgic retro setting, a cast of A-list actors giving their best Dramatic Performances, Jews, political tension, socioeconomic disparity, immigrants, and racial trauma. I sat through the whole movie waiting for the big reveal that Paul was gay, and I’m frankly astonished that it never came. I had my Oscar-bait Bingo Card ready and everything.)
Their parents and teachers are amply aware of the prejudices and cruelties of the outside world, yet they are tragically incapable of talking about such issues in terms that Paul and Johnny can understand. It certainly doesn’t help that their teacher (Mr. Turkeltaub, played by Andrew Polk) is a disciplinarian with a short fuse and no sense of humor who insists on treating Paul and Johnny like miscreants incapable of bettering themselves. Potentially even worse, Irving is an abusive father who literally beats his children. And yes, we see that onscreen in unflinching detail. The only one who can really get through to Paul is Grandpa Aaron (who naturally dies partway through the movie) and everyone else has given up on him.
Another crucial factor is in the hypocrisy of the times and the people around Paul. A prime example comes when he gets transferred to a private school, surrounded by wealthy white kids who cheer for Reagan and drop the N-word with a straight face when talking about black kids. And the school is primarily funded by Maryann Trump (Jessica Chastain in a speaking cameo role), who has the unmitigated gall to tell this school full of rich white kids that they can only be successful if they work hard without depending on any handouts. And she’s saying all this in front of her own wealthy father (Fred Trump, played by John Diehl).
What’s even more messed up, there’s a scene late in the movie in which Paul’s father tells him that life isn’t fair and it sucks that black people get it harder than white people just by virtue of their skin color. But there’s nothing better to do about it than to shut up, don’t think about it, take whatever breaks you can get, and move on. And in literally the very next scene, Paul’s entire family is gathered around the TV set, heartbroken that Ronald freaking Reagan is going to be president.
This one belongs to Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb, both of whom deserve great credit for playing disrespectful and mischievous little shits without losing any audience sympathy. Jessica Chastain is barely in this picture, but she’s never been one to give less than 100 percent for any role. Sir Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway, and Jeremy Strong are the only other name actors in this picture, and they’re all pretty much going through the motions. They’re all solid, don’t get me wrong, but that’s primarily because they’re not doing anything they haven’t already done a million times in so many other movies.
Hell, the whole movie is predictable to a fault. It doesn’t really say much of anything new and the plot glides along on rails. That doesn’t make for a bad film, necessarily, but it doesn’t exactly make for anything unique or groundbreaking, either. Then again, this was clearly a project of great personal importance for Grey, and I doubt that advancing the medium of film or inspiring the next generation of filmmakers were high on his list of priorities here.
In summary, Armageddon Time is a sweet and heartfelt little movie about a boy who comes of age by gradually learning about the cruel political realities of the world around him, his place in those realities, and his duty to stand up to those injustices in any way he can. Alas, this movie reeks of Oscar-bait. This is one of those movies that does everything well enough to qualify as “good” and thoughtful enough to be called “intelligent”, but doesn’t do anything novel enough to be “memorable.”
This one is easily on par with Grey’s previous movies: Technically solid and achingly sincere, but nobody’s going to remember this one after next year’s Oscars have come and gone. Hell, I’d be amazed if anyone remembers this in another week, after The Fabelmans (and a tidal wave of other movies) slap it out of multiplexes.