Paul Graff (Banks Repeta, “The Black Phone”), writer/director James Gray’s (“The Immigrant”) fictional counterpart, is the grandson of Jewish immigrants and the son of middle class parents Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong) living in Queens, New York. Paul is guided by their belief in the American Dream, but finds it tested by the divergent path his life takes from that of his Black public school friend Johnny’s (Jaylin Webb) in “Armageddon Time.”
Laura's Review: C+
Gray’s latest begins almost like a family sitcom, Paul introduced as a spoiled brat threatening to call for Chinese takeout in objection to his mother’s food at a table that includes older brother Ted (Ryan Sell), Grandpa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) and Grandma Mickey Rabinowitz (Tovah Feldshuh) and an aunt and uncle in addition to his parents. Paul harbors a number of delusions about his family, thinking his parents are rich when they’re being financially supported, especially in regards to Ted’s private school tuition, by his maternal grandparents and that his mother wields power at his public school because she’s the president of the PTA.
Things get a more serious when we view Paul in his sixth grade classroom where he becomes friendly with Johnny, one of the class’s two black students. Teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk) has an extremely contentious relationship with the pupil he’s held back, immediately blaming Johnny for Paul’s tomfoolery. The more we learn about Johnny, the more heartbreaking his story becomes and the larger the indictment against an uncaring system.
“Armageddon Time” (the title refers to Reagan’s ascension in national politics) is many things – a coming of age story, a morality tale, a look at a rigged system where one minority will sell out another to survive, a personal account burdened with white guilt. Irving, the son of a plumber, and Esther live in a brick house that looks like it hasn’t had a refresh in twenty years (production design by “The Immigrant’s” Happy Massee, who conveys a drab 70’s hangover in the early 80’s) are striving for something better, at one point taking a drive to look at nicer houses. It is Paul’s grandfather who has the most influence on the boy, encouraging his dreams of becoming an artist while his parents stress college and a more practical profession. He also tells Paul about how his great, great grandparents were murdered in front of his great grandmother’s eyes, continually stressing that he fight back against any oppression. When Paul and Johnny are caught smoking a joint in the school bathroom, neither really understanding what it is other than something guaranteed to make them laugh, Paul is outraged to learn that he is now going to be sent to the same school as his brother. And then things get really muddled.
At private school, Paul experiences implied anti-Semitism from the first man to greet him, school benefactor Fred Trump (John Diehl), and racism in the schoolyard where Johnny comes to meet him. When he tells granddad about the incident, he’s told to stand up to them, and yet we learn that it is his grandfather who insisted he be sent to this school. Muddying the waters further is grandma’s racist statements about bussed black students at the dinner table. When Johnny comes looking for help, in dire straights with social services, Paul’s plan to get them both to Florida where his friend has a relative in the Air Force near NASA gets them both arrested. Irving uses connections to get his boy out, fully aware of what will happen to the friend who bore less guilt. For all the importance of the grandfather in Paul’s life, the boy seems oddly unaffected by his passing, excepting his resistance to being removed from his deathbed.
Repeta is a bit of a blank slate in the lead role, a naïve kid who gets lost in fantasies and senses injustice but is weak in his response to it. Adults around him add confusion and demoralization. Jaylin Webb, on the other hand, portrays a kid far wiser and tougher, railing against his fate while succumbing to its inevitability. It’s a very layered and mature performance. Anne Hathaway is surprisingly effective as the stressed mother determined to get a better life for her kids, but her dad’s failing health removes her from the picture. Strong portrays Irving with stiff body language and an affected voice, but moves us with his speech about Aaron when the man dies. Yet again, though we’re seeing a man touched by decency who fails when put to the same test. Hopkins is effective in a kindly grandfather kind of way but Gray has made his character a bit hard to cipher. Jessica Chastain is appropriately off putting in a tiny cameo as Maryanne Trump, but the Trumps’ presence here is a bit like hammering a nail in with a pile driver.
Gray is clearly exorcizing demons with this personal film, but it is a mess of rambling inconsistencies for those of us experiencing it.
Focus Features releases "Armageddon Time" in theaters on 10/28/22.