starring Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Anthony Hopkins
written and directed by James Gray
by Angelo Muredda "All the great artists sign their work," Anthony Hopkins's benevolent grandfather Aaron tells his aimless but creatively-inclined grandson Paul (Banks Repeta) early in Armageddon Time, James Gray's autobiographical profile of growing up in Flushing, Queens as part of a tight-knit Russian-Jewish family. That advice seems to weigh heavily on Gray, who places it at the top of a ladder above less helpful artistic feedback like one teacher's admonition not to copy when Paul reproduces a Kandinsky he saw at the Guggenheim from memory, and another's gentler but no less prescriptive prompt, after Paul's creative work doesn't follow the brief, that he do the assignment. Signing the work for Gray, who has long been fascinated by the tension between the weight of Old World family ties and the seductive levity of contemporary life, means carefully tracking his fictional surrogate family's cross-generational assimilation into Ronald Reagan's America, which he proposes happened not just in the shadow of ghouls like Fred and Maryanne Trump (played here by Jessica Chastain)--donors at Gray's and Paul's private school--but, more insidiously, through American Jews' growing proximity to whiteness. Suffused with Gray's typical tragic grandeur and rich thematic preoccupation with the uniquely American compulsion to recreate oneself as a blank slate despite one's inescapable background, that signature is nevertheless a bit fainter than usual here, owing to the off-the-rack genre elements of the artist's coming-of-age narrative and a still-developing protagonist who, by film's end, remains too opaque to leave his mark as either an artist or an authorial surrogate.
The film opens in the last days of the Carter administration in Gray's old stomping ground of Public School 173, as sixth-grader Paul is scolded for a caricature of his teacher he insists was only meant to make people laugh. All the laughers in question abandon Paul except for classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black student who's been held back a year, presumably more for his minor everyday rebellions against the racist teacher who despises him than for any issues with his academic potential. The boys become fast friends, with Johnny initiating Paul into the pleasures of cutting class and listening to "Rapper's Delight" and Paul encouraging Johnny to dream big about moving to Florida. Their salad days abruptly end when a minor infraction with weed sees them called to the principal's office along with Paul's mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway). At Aaron's urging, Paul is shipped off to an expensive private school (once attended by Donald Trump himself, as Gray has pointed out in interviews), the kind of traumatic life change Johnny would likely kill for. Before long, Paul's desire to break free from the confines of the upstanding future his family has laid out for him--which, they remind him, is far removed from the life of precarity and danger they fled in recent history--sees him planning a caper with Johnny. As in their previous flirtation with illegality, Johnny is not afforded the same opportunity for new beginnings when they're caught.
Set on the eve of Reagan's first election, the apocalyptic event the title alludes to (in addition to being a reference to the song by The Clash, itself appropriately a cover of reggae artist Willi Williams's original), Armageddon Time looks ahead to a number of hot-button American sociopolitical touchpoints of the present, from cultural appropriation to white privilege to toxic bootstraps culture. Some of these discourses are more organically planted in Paul's journey than others, a brush with the future First Family and the dissipated cronyism they represent feeling especially obvious and clumsily grafted-on. One wonders at times why Gray so confidently traces his own shape over this standard-issue coming-of-age protagonist in the first place, or if he needs the biographical framing to get to what he's saying about the making of the Reaganite American. The film is much more poignant and specific as an in-progress snapshot of aspiring middle-class Jewish assimilation into American culture, far enough from the Holocaust that Paul and his brother can walk the same halls as Trump Sr. but not so removed that Paul's grandparents aren't always thinking about the potential that someone might still come for them in the night.
Paul's hard-learned lessons about morality, friendship, and history are ultimately filtered through his family's efforts to, as his grandmother puts it, earn his generation a seat at the table. Like other Gray protagonists, getting that seat calls for a kind of guilty embrace of destiny--in this case, Paul's alignment with the charmed and unfailingly white student body of his new school, which is mirrored in his family's pivot away from the working class and the oppressed minorities in their orbit as they draft behind the white ruling class. Aware of that privilege, Paul's grandfather, wonderfully downplayed by Hopkins (warm and convincing despite a drifting accent), reminds him to be a mensch to Johnny and boys like him: "They never had your advantage." But Paul's collision course with fate finds him bailed out over the good luck of his father Irving's previous favour for a police officer while his Black friend languishes in the criminal justice system. Mensch or no mensch, and however Irving (Jeremy Strong) spins his break as an opportunity to do good ("You gotta be thankful when you're given a leg up," Strong's patriarch says, comically sounding a bit like Bernie Sanders in delivery if not content), Paul has something that Johnny will never have: the benefit of the doubt.
Crafting an autobiography of one's boyhood complicity in the white-supremacist machinations of the state is a bold rhetorical move. That payoff isn't always matched in boldness by the film's tentative, desaturated aesthetics and relatively thin characterizations. Gray's attention to the most minute textural details that evoke a world, which gave a lived-in quality to hothouse melodramas such as Two Lovers and We Own the Night, persists here–as in a family dinner scene interrupted by Paul's order of contraband dumplings from the local Chinese restaurant, or the family's note-perfect field trip to the movies to see Private Benjamin--but Paul remains a cipher, Repeta coming alive as a distinct presence only when teased out by seasoned pros like Hopkins, Strong, and Hathaway. Webb's Johnny fares even worse: As refreshing as the film is for its admission of its protagonist's cowardly embrace of his better destiny, it's got very little sense of what makes Johnny tick outside of his musical tastes--and even less of an idea why he might get a kick out of a mensch-in-progress like Paul. Still, though Johnny's transactional role in Paul's coming-of-age makes it tempting to write the whole thing off as white apologia, there's something to be said for a künstlerroman that owns up to the ghosts of the people the artist got a leg up on in his youth, whose autobiographies are still waiting to be made.