Armageddon Time  (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. James Gray, US/Brazil, 2022, 115 mins

Cast:  Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb

Review by Carol Allen

In Armageddon Time writer/director James Gray is revisiting his own childhood in 1980, which he describes as “a pivotal moment in postwar American history”.  

It was the year when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency, when John Lennon was assassinated and Donald Trump perhaps started to consider entering onto the political stage.  But apart from Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) turning up at the school of Gray’s young alter ego Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) to deliver a lecture on the virtues of hard work, these events don’t seem to figure much in young Paul’s childhood.   Certainly not to the degree of trepidation implicit in the title, which would be more appropriate to the “ban the bomb” sixties.  

What the film does do is stick very closely, according to Gray, to the events in his life as the 11 year old grandchild of Jewish immigrants living in a comfortable house with his parents, elder brother and grandfather in Queens, New York.  Paul goes to the local high school, a bit of a rough house, where his closest friend is Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a black boy who is living with and indeed looking after his invalid grandmother.

When the two boys are caught at school smoking a naughty joint, Paul’s mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), who is a prominent member of the PTA, transfers him to a posh private school.  Johnny though is out on his ear and now on society’s social delinquent radar.

Like Gray in real life, Paul’s closest family relationship is with his maternal grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins).  While perhaps not the most obvious choice to play a New York Jewish patriarch, Hopkins makes the character and his love for his grandson totally engaging.  The scene where he tells Paul the story of how his own mother came to America from the Ukraine as a young woman, after being forced to witness the murder of her parents by anti-Semitic Russians, is riveting. 

Hathaway is good as his Paul’s ever busy but loving mother, as is Jeremy Strong as his father Irving.  Irving comes from lower down the social scale than his wife and is both fiercely loving of his family and sometimes startlingly violent.  And the tribe of various uncles and aunts who gather round the family dining table with their tales of the past and advice to the young are fascinating.

Webb as Johnny holds the attention strongly in the contrast between his experiences and those of the Graff family.  This social inequality is in many ways the dramatic heart of the film. 

The least interesting character oddly enough is Paul.  Maybe Gray wasn’t a very interesting child?   Repeta is a good looking and attractive boy but the character is somewhat colourless compared to the people around him.  And the story by its very nature is episodic without a lot of dramatic development.

Having said that as a historical picture of New York Jewish family culture at the beginning of the eighties and its relationship to the society around them, the film is a useful and interesting social document.