ARMAGEDDON TIME

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: James Gray

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Ryan Sell, John Diehl, Jessica Chastain, Andrew Polk, Tovah Feldshuh.

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A semi-autobiographical and deeply personal coming of age tale set in New York at the beginning of the 1980s, Armageddon Time is loosely based on director James Gray’s own childhood experiences which helped shape him. And while the film explores many themes that have been typical of his canon, this one builds a strong emotional response from the audience.  

Gray’s counterpart here is Paul Graf (newcomer Banks Repeta) an eleven-year-old who is just beginning secondary school at a public school in Queens. Paul dreams of becoming a famous artist and he is often easily distracted. He faces prejudice and bullying, which makes him more sympathetic towards fellow student Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an African-American student who is often deliberately belittled and humiliated by prejudiced, racist and unsympathetic teachers. Johnny dreams of becoming an astronaut for NASA. Paul and Johnny develop a strong bond formed over their shared dreams, and Paul even permits Johnny, who obviously comes from a troubled home, to sleep in his little backyard cubby. But it is a friendship that also leads the mischievous pair into trouble. Paul is artistic and creative and dreams big. His older brother Ned (Ryan Sell) attends a Catholic college in New York.  

Paul’s behaviour though sometimes worries his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), who is running for election for the local school board, and his strict and hot-headed father Irving (Jeremy Strong, from Succession, etc) who struggle to understand him. Paul finds support and sympathy from his beloved and kindly maternal grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) who supports and encourages Paul in his artistic endeavours. Aaron has been battling prejudice of one kind or another most of his life, and he passes on some coping strategies to Paul to enable him to fight back against bullies and to survive in this increasingly harsh world. To try and counter Paul’s troublesome ways, he is eventually sent to an upmarket private school in New York, which has been funded by New York realtor Fred Trump (John Diehl), the father of future President Donald.  

Gray captures the chaotic and often dysfunctional dynamic of the close-knit Graf family, but he also shows that there is a lot of love within the family unit. His screenplay has something of an episodic touch, packed with lots of incidents that don’t always flow naturally. The film is atmospheric and has been nicely shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, etc), whose use of natural light and a greyish colour palette effectively creates a nostalgic mood, but also adds something of a drab visual style and bleak tone to the material. Although honest in its approach, there is a distinct lack of sentimentality to the film. 

Armageddon Time boasts some solid performances from its ensemble cast. Hopkins delivers a warm and sympathetic performance as the kindly and indulgent grandfather and plays him with a twinkle in his eye. He is given some moving and insightful dialogue which explores his family history, the plight of Jewish immigrants in the first part of the twentieth century. Repeta also delivers a nicely nuanced performance as the confused, anxious and troubled Paul that gradually earns some audience’s sympathy for his misfit character. Hathaway is also very good as Paul’s mother. Jessica Chastain contributes a cameo as Donald Trump’s sister Maryanne, who addresses the students at Paul’s school 

The film takes its ominous sounding title from a song by The Clash, as well as couple of clips featuring Ronald Reagan, the former actor and California governor who was making a run for the Presidency at the start of the 80s. He was constantly referring to the era as “Armageddon”, which weighed heavily on the younger generation at that time, according to Gray. The film also serves up a critique of America under Reagan with its tough economic policies and ideas of hard work and ethics, and there is thinly veiled reference to the contemporary political landscape of America. 

★★★

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