When a filmmaker makes a film that reflects on their youth, there is a tendency for them to make a film that romanticizes the past. This is not the case with James Gray's latest film, Armageddon Time, which sees him looking back at his upbringing in a more critical way. Taking place in New York City in the year 1980, the film is semi-autobiographical for Gray, but he is dealing with something larger than just taking a stroll down memory lane. In fact, the picture he paints of this specific time and place is much bleaker and heavier than most coming-of-age films. This is mainly because Gray is using the past as a means of understanding our present, and to explore concepts of assimilation, systemic discrimination, and privilege. While some of the ideas that Gray is presenting here might be a bit murky at times, Armageddon Time is still a rather affecting vision of the past and how it tends to repeat itself.
The film begins in a New York Public School, where we are introduced to Paul (Banks Repeta), a young Jewish boy on his first day of 6th grade. On this day, he befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a young African-American boy. As their friendship grows, Paul must navigate through the prejudice that both him and Johnny face, as well as the expectations that his parents have for him. The basic premise of the film is deceptively simple, as it sounds like it wouldn't be too unlike most coming-of-age films, but Gray instead confronts his own past to explore inequality and privilege in America, and how certain systemic factors keep these in place.
When it comes to stories that deal with racial prejudice, one can't help but wonder if it is appropriate for a white man to be telling them. Some of the larger points that James Gray is seeking to make in regards to racial inequality seem a bit muddled, but it is clear to see what he is going for, at the very least. It helps that Gray takes a more straightforward approach to the film's narrative, and that it is told through the perspective of someone who both experiences oppression, but also benefits from the oppression of others. This idea is a major focal point of the whole film, as we hear how Paul's family has been discriminated against for being Jewish, but we also see the privilege they have. We see that Paul's family is aware of issues of inequality in America at various points in the film, but they are also part of the problem, whether they realize it or not. In one scene, Anthony Hopkins's character, Aaron, states that "the game is rigged" in regards to marginalized groups making it in America, but we also see how Paul's family plays this game, even if it is through seemingly small actions.
Paul's parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) are in pursuit of the American Dream, and in order to do this, they must assimilate to the culture. In the case of the film, means enrolling their kids in private school, running for school board, and running an honest business, among other things. They are desperately trying to create a better life for them and their family, and to try and make it in a world that often discriminates against them. But in trying to assimilate into this culture, they become a part of the very force that threatens them. We see them engage in casual racism, turn a blind eye to larger societal issues, and put high expectations on their kids. This clashes with Paul's friendship with Johnny, as well as his dreams of being an artist. This feeds into the idea of how older generations impact future ones, and how certain views and ideals can ebb and flow in American culture. The film is set in the months leading up to Ronald Reagan being elected President of the United States, and we get some scenes where Paul's family voices their distaste for him. These moments parallel how many reacted in the months leading up to Donald Trump being elected President, as the election of both figures was a bit surprising and perplexing. Paul's family wonder how a man like Reagan could become President, but the answer is all around them. The systems in place that might keep them from achieving their dreams are the same ones that help them climb up and attain a better life. They may be oppressed by these systems, but they are also benefiting from them, whether they realize it or not.
A lot of the film is devoted to inequality in a larger, more societal sense, but much of it comes from how the education system fails students from marginalized groups in a disproportional way. An early scene in the film sees Paul and Johnny getting in trouble by their teacher. While the teacher has his back turned, Paul acts out again, but the teacher reprimands Johnny instead. Johnny is treated very harshly by the teacher throughout the film, and he is consistently set up to fail by him. It's absolutely devastating to see Johnny being treated so unfairly, and it plays into the film's larger statements on inequality. While Paul and his family also face discrimination, he has the ability to escape some of it, and has resources that can help him be successful. Johnny is not as fortunate, and has very little support in helping him achieve his dreams. Paul's realization of this is a hammer blow to him and to the audience, as it makes for a powerful statement on privilege, and how it is perpetuated in our culture.
The idea of privilege is all over this film, as we see Paul wrestling with his own privilege throughout the film. We see him discovering this concept as it relates to how poorly Johnny is treated all throughout the film, and how it expands to other aspects of his life. The film is wrestling with many things under this umbrella, but one of the ideas that comes across loud and clear is how many people refuse to stand up in the face of injustice by means of their own privilege. Paul sees the unfairness of life through his friendship with Johnny, as well as through his relationship with his parents and the scenes that take place at school. Paul is becoming aware of the prejudice that many people have, but he is unsure what to do when he encounters it. Most of the people in his life just stay out of it, but his grandfather, Aaron is much more progressive. In one of the film's more memorable scenes, he advises him to stand up to prejudice if he sees it, and to remember his privilege as a white person. This contrasts with a scene we see later between Paul and his father, where he talks about staying quiet in order to survive in America. As humans, we often say that we would be the first to stand up in the face of injustice. Some people actually walk the walk and do just that, but others stay out of it due to their own privilege. The film illustrates the latter especially well, which is difficult to see, but it is something that occurs more often than most people care to admit.
One thing I love about James Gray as a filmmaker is that his films often appear to be one thing on their surface, but there is so much depth to them that allows him to explore larger concepts. This is certainly the case with Armageddon Time, as he delivers a coming-of-age film, but reckons with heavy societal issues all throughout it. Gray's more straightforward writing style allows most of his ideas to come across, but he is trying to pull off so many things in the film that they do feel a bit muddy in places. His direction mostly makes up for this, as he has such a clear, confident vision that allows some of its more weighty statements to hit hard. In both cases, it is clear that this is a highly personal film for Gray, as it is based on his actual childhood. I appreciate that he uses this as a way to actually talk about important issues and themes, as opposed to making a the film a nostalgic look back at his youth. His view of the past is rather bleak, but it ends up feeling more realistic, and has a huge impact as a result.
One of Gray's other gifts as a filmmaker is getting great performances from his actors, which he demonstrates excellently here. Banks Repeta is quite good as Paul, and he is so genuine throughout the film. You really feel for the character as he experiences the harsh realities of the world, and a lot of that is due to Repeta's empathy and honesty in the role. Also good is Jaylin Webb, who is similarly genuine, and has a strong screen presence. He is incredibly likable, and there is so much truth in his performance, which makes the things he goes through in the film hurt even more. The scenes of Repeta and Webb together are great, and the dynamic they have is quite nice. The two give some of the best performances from young actors this year, and I am very curious to see where their careers take them.
As for the rest of the cast, we get some stand-out performances from veteran actors like Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, and Anthony Hopkins. Hathaway slips into the character of Paul's mother, Esther almost effortlessly, and gives a nuanced performance that plays into the complicated themes of the film quite well. Strong is giving a big performance as Paul's father, Irving, complete with a strange, Ray Romano meets Bernie Sanders-esque voice, but it kind of works incredibly well. Irving has a big personality, and Strong's performance reflects that. His performance might be a bit much at times, but he is still fascinating to watch, and gets a couple of great scenes in the film. Of course, Anthony Hopkins is incredible as always. As Paul's Grandfather, Aaron, he plays the one character that truly seems to support him, and represents the voice of reason of the film. Hopkins has the gravitas and warmth that the character needs, and is one of the few things about the film that is truly pleasant. It's not a super demanding role, but Hopkins still knocks it out of the park.
The film has a bit of a drab look to it, as it has a very muted color palette and a shadowy quality to its color grading. However, it fits the context of the film, as it gives it a more colder feel that accentuates its heavier themes. Darius Khondji is a talented cinematographer, and it is clear that he knows what he is doing here. At times, the camerawork does seem a bit too dark, but it works far more than it doesn't. It's not particularly showy, but it does ground the film a little bit, and has an authentic feel to it.
While some of what James Gray is trying to say gets a bit lost in certain moments, Armageddon Time still manages to be a deeply affecting look back into the past. It wisely avoids being saccharine, and presents a more realistic view into life in New York in the early '80s. It is a powerful examination of privilege and inequality, and a surprisingly solemn coming-of-age story that broke my heart. It is challenging at times, and some of it doesn't quite come together, but it is still rather impactful. The film isn't trying to be an inspiring film about overcoming adversity. It is instead a look at how things really are for marginalized groups everyday in America. The rather blunt depiction of this might be a bit hard for some to swallow, but there is a lot of truth to what we see in the film. Among other things, it shows us that the only way to move forward is to learn from our past, and that it is important to stand up against injustice, even if you have the privilege of staying out of it. If we don't do this, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over again until the world ends. It might not be the most hopeful message, but it is a crucial one that many people certainly need to hear.