James Gray began his career in crime dramas and then branched out pretty wide afterwards, from romance to sci-fi to historical adventure, but he’s not really a “genre” filmmaker. Talking about his movies through that lens feels a little reductive. He doesn’t really make crime movies or sci-fi movies, but movies about relationships, about big themes, which then adopt an easily categorized appearance on the surface. In that sense, Armageddon Time is the James Gray “Coming of Age Movie”, and as a New York based filmmaker it’s his “New York Movie”, and it definitely has the staples of both. But it shirks labels by centering themes of racism and white privilege. Genres act as vehicles for Issues in Armageddon Time. It’s a film that wants to be important, a film about The Way Things Were and Why Things Are the Way They Are Now.
In a mix of autobiography and fiction, Paul Graf (read: Young James Gray, played by Banks Repeta) lives with his mixed-class, Jewish family in Queens. While his brother Ted (Ryan Sell) attends a prestigious private school, Paul’s idealistic mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway) has placed him in public school, partly to ground him but also because she has political ambitions as president of the PTA and candidate for the school board. Meanwhile, Paul’s emotionally stunted and sometimes physically abusive father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), attempts to rule with an iron fist, but his attempts are feeble. Paul only connects with one person in his family, his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), who encourages Paul in his creative pursuits and shares a kind of kindred spirit with him while also trying not to interfere with his parenting. Early in the school year, James befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a rebellious black classmate held back from the previous year. Quickly the disparity between how Paul is treated in his rebellious adolescence versus Johnny illustrates the racist attitudes of adults from the time, which embeds itself in all systems, educational to penal.
Armageddon Time coasts on its performances. Hopkins, unsurprisingly, gives the best, disappearing into the role with an amazing unrehearsed quality, providing his character with subtle affectations, like a tendency to jabber as a result of a wise but scattered mind. Newcomer Repeta actually contends with him the best. He’s a natural onscreen, somewhat awkward in a way that might be unintentional but works great for his character. Anne Hathaway gives a complex performance as Esther, attempting to project a fierce spirit but softened and unsure, a woman with big aspirations and an independent spirit often overridden by her demanding family. Jeremy Strong seems rather stilted in his performance, assuming a schematic persona of a Working Class and Jewish New York Dad—stiff posture, a troubled and frustrated expression at all times, and clipped, throaty speech that sounds like Bernie Sanders. Still, there’s something compelling about him, and he’s very enjoyable to watch, despite his somewhat blunt approach. It may be worth noting that Fred and Maryanne Trump (John Diehl and Jessica Chastain) make an appearance as major donors to the private school Paul eventually goes to. The performances and, really, their mere presence as characters, is embarrassingly stagy and unnecessary. And also encapsulates the kind of limp criticism of systems of power that comprise the film.
Gray attempts to use a brief time in Paul’s life to explore the way racism places a wedge between people from an early age. His observations are astute, but of questionable intent. The themes of racism feel less like critical readings and more like guilty recollections. Nowhere is this more evident than in how Johnny is written. Jaylin Webb’s charming screen presence makes Johnny vivid, but the effect is ephemeral, confined only to the immediate experience on screen. Upon reflection, Johnny fades into the film’s thematic background. Some attempt is made to give him an inner life. Small touches such as his collection of NASA badges and dream to become an astronaut, the music he introduces to Paul, and an adventurous spirit make him more than just a symbol, but he’s not particularly complex.
Maybe James Gray felt he didn’t have the right to go that far into the character, but neglecting to do so seems like an inability to truly empathize. The next level in anti-racism for white people is not being educated about racist systems but in being able to converse with other white people about them, to be able to call out that ignorant comment by a relative during Thanksgiving dinner. Paul never confronts others about their racist attitudes. And maybe that’s the truth, that James Gray never did. But to only show how Johnny gets such a raw deal while Paul blossoms despite his missteps without adding any kind of reflection on that, any deeper observation other than “racism sucks, huh?” comes off as pretty glib.
But something else in the movie proves to be even more needling: the cinematography. Considering James Gray’s usual sharpness as a director, Armageddon Time is frankly baffling. It suffers from the same film lighting issues that recent horror films have suffered from. Its darkness is motivated but incomprehensible. As a piece of non-verbal character building it works, because the working class family, likely conservative in their use of electricity and keep most of the lights off in the house, but there’s a dearth of visual information, no contrast and no expressiveness. You simply can’t see anything. There’s no need to make everything flat and murky for the sake of naturalism. A number of recent films from great directors feature scenes in darkness that still look great, even without the benefit of celluloid. Steven Spielberg, Jordan Peele, and Edgar Wright all come to mind as having had recent films with many night-time scenes that are well-lit and expressive without seeming phony.
Many films with great acting get tossed into the waste bin of time because, thematically and technically, they’re misguided, wrongheaded films. Armageddon Time is a faux-polemic with anti-racist aspirations but a complacent, centrist core, half-hearted in conviction and execution. And so it goes right into that waste bin, a sad waste of one of Hopkins’s best late-in-life performances, one that may actually be legitimately Oscar-worthy. It goes in the bin, right along with Green Book. | Nic Champion