‘Armageddon Time’ an Honest, Overworked Tale of Two Americas

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A young white boy in a winter jacket sits on a park bench next to an elderly man wearing a suit.
Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins in “Armageddon Time” | Courtesy of Focus Features via IMDb

The potency of James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” relies on the film being watched in 2022.

A New York boy coming of age in 1980, protagonist Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) turns to a friend and tells him that his favorite band is The Beatles.

“I hear they’re getting back together soon,” he says with confident earnestness.


The sad joke is that, of course, the band — unbeknownst to Paul — was not getting back together. John Lennon would be fatally shot on Dec. 8 of that year, just a couple of months after Paul starts his sixth-grade year at a Queens public school.

On day one of the new school year, Paul rekindles his friendship with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black boy held back a year, and the two find glee in making mischief. Johnny almost always receives the harsher punishment of the two, but their friendship endures, despite Paul’s family’s sour outlook on the presence of a Black kid in Paul’s life. 

Eventually, the Graffs transfer Paul to the same private school as his older brother, where Paul trades in well-worn striped turtlenecks for a trim suit and his Black classmate for pale, wealthy ones who spit the n-word.

As Paul still struggles at his new school, head in the clouds and hands busy doodling, Johnny struggles, too. Tired of the punitive nature of his public school, Johnny drops out and asks increasingly larger favors of Paul: He needs a place to stay away from his senile grandmother and money to run away to Florida, where he can become a NASA astronaut.

In the middle of everything is Paul. His father Irving (Jeremy Strong) is a hot-and-cold repairman who has no problem whipping Paul with his belt upon learning from his wife Esther (Anne Hathaway) that Paul had smoked pot in school. And Paul can no longer rely on the goodwill of Esther, who is the president of the district’s parent-teacher association.

Education is the most important thing to the Graff family, a tight-knit Ashkenazi family.

Paul’s grandfather Aaron Rabinowitz, played as gentle yet haunted by Anthony Hopkins, encountered enough strife fleeing Ukraine in decades past. He wants Paul to keep his head down and remember the sacrifices his family made to immigrate and assimilate to the United States to give the young generation a fighting chance of going to college. A private school funded by the Trump family (yes, that Trump family) is the family’s best bet.

Between Hopkins’ tra-la-la dialogue with Paul and the palpable weight of family trauma bearing on him, the patriarch builds the foundation of a family just trying to make it, finding levity in the ever-serious days building up to Ronald Reagan’s election.

A young Black boy and a young white boy run under a tunnel in Central Park.
Jaylin Webb and Banks Repeta in “Armageddon Time” | Courtesy of Focus Features via IMDb

Among the next generation, Hathaway and Strong’s depictions of Paul’s parents show a tenacity to achieve this American dream, even willing to step on the heads of others. Paul, despite being warped by his family’s and classmates’ racism, still wants to be friends with Johnny. He knows how to stand up for what’s right, but with no backup and increasing familial pressures to stay out of trouble, it only becomes harder for Paul to do so.

In a seamless dialogue between childhood naivete and optimism and grown-up jaded realism, “Armageddon Time” has no problem raising the stakes and letting the audience squirm and sit with a struggling Jewish family’s anti-Blackness and proclivity toward stiff punishments. Gray doesn’t pull punches in showing Johnny’s descent into trouble. Johnny’s is a fate that has become all too familiar to a liberal white audience, who, since the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, has perhaps spent the better part of two years learning about the school-to-prison pipeline and police brutality.

Gray relies on today’s zeitgeist to a fault. When Fred Trump, father to the U.S.’s 45th president, introduces Maryanne Trump to speak at Paul’s school, the scene deflates the bubble of period-era verisimilitude Gray had so slowly and steadily built. Clues of the private school’s elite and conservative status abound, even without the notorious family’s presence.

A period piece of the 1980s, “Armageddon Time” says more about the politics of the 2020s, but perhaps not in the clever, understated way Gray intended.

With its strong cast of actors, attention to detail and gut-punching plot, “Armageddon Time” could have cemented itself as an evergreen modern classic of interracial friendship and the turmoil of generational trauma. But sometimes a little too on the nose, the film makes itself vulnerable to feeling dated in a time of a rapidly changing political and social landscape.

srogelberg@midatlanticmedia.com

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