Running on nostalgia James Gray beautifully photographs his past with Armageddon Time. For as enticing as the imagery is, Gray’s film leaves much to be desired in terms of subtext. Indeed, there’s a vital commentary about the immigrant experience tied to bigotry, but it’s all very familiar. Despite the film’s conventionality, there’s enough charisma in its cast, pace, and style to warrant a viewing at the movies or at least on home video.
Armageddon Time follows the story of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta). Paul’s the descendant of a Jewish family residing in New York City during Ronald Regan’s 1980 Presidential Campaign. The Graffs aren’t fans of Regan, citing the distress of his leadership heading towards a potential nuclear nightmare. Hence the title Armageddon Time. Things in school aren’t much rosier for Paul. His over-demanding teacher Mr. Turkletob (Andrew Polk), renders Paul’s school life unmanageable. Possibly due to antisemitism of his own, Turkletob targets Paul unfairly whenever he wants to blow off some steam, which seems to be constant.
To make matters worse, Paul’s only friend in school is black. Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) is steadfast in his self-respect. Johnny doesn’t let the teacher talk down to him, which he certainly does to an immeasurable degree. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Mr. Turkletob tells the students to get out their books, then proceeds to stare down Johnny saying something along the lines of “I know you can’t read.” Rather than swallowing his pride, Johnny rebuttals without hesitation by exclaiming, “fuck you Turkey” (mocking Mr. Turkletob’s awkward last name). The incident doesn’t go unpunished, and Johnny accepts that his academic life is doomed just for being a boy of color.
With World War II over and Hitler’s attempted extermination of the Jews rendered a failure, one would think Jewish Americans would be treated with respect. Not so. Nothing has highlighted this more than Ken Burns’ spectacular documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust, chronicling America’s attempt to sweep the Holocaust under the rug. Jewish Americans have long been mistreated, and James Gray’s autobiographical recollection of such times reopens a wound that’s hardly been thoroughly examined. To help realize Gray’s vision is Darius Khondji’s subdued cinematography.
When the film ended, I asked my colleagues if the film was shot in 35mm print. Not in their wheelhouse, my fellow critics didn’t have an answer. After digging, I discovered that the film was shot digitally. Arri are the masters of camera manufacturing. If Armageddon Time were filmed on a RED camera, the image would have that milky digital cleanliness that doesn’t capture the beauty of the grains that rest within celluloid. Arri makes their cameras emulate the look of film to the point where the viewer can’t tell the difference. The natural grains within the image had me fooled. The straight color grade and evenly exposed lighting transports you into 1980 New York City almost seamlessly, with a talented cast to boot.
If you’ve seen the ads for Armageddon Time, you may have noticed plenty of name drops stemming from Anthony Hopkins to Anne Hathaway. Along with those names come newcomers like Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, and Succession star Jeremy Strong. Together the cast molds reasonably well. Anthony Hopkins plays the loving grandfather to Paul, who contains the most substantial moral code of all the characters. Where Paul’s parents aren’t too fond of their son hanging out with a black kid, Hopkins’ Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz displays outright disgust at anyone mistreating someone based on their ethnicity and background. When not eating someone’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti, Hopkins has an indelible charm that radiates the screen.
Anne Hathaway plays Paul’s mom Esther. As the PTA president (parent-teacher association), Esther expects a great deal from her son. Being more demanding than loving, Paul doesn’t find much comfort in seeking out his mother. Hathaway’s unintentional bratty demeanor brings Esther to life in a way most actresses couldn’t replicate. Although unkind, Esther has an understandable degree of fear, hoping her son lives to provide a bright future rather than a financially bankrupt one. Paul’s father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), is even worse than his mother, as his usual method of discipline involves a belt. Strong doesn’t hold back on being a repulsive individual who could have exercised restraint in performance. Not an ounce of love did I find in Jeremy Strong’s character. It’s all malice being presented with an aggressive tone. For the role, it’s fitting, but more layers could be added to the father to flesh him out. The child actors in the film are serviceable, if only that. They do their job well, but nothing that blows me away. They don’t have to be spectacular; they simply have to give a believable performance. In that respect, they certainly do their job, if nothing beyond that.
Like the children’s acting, Armageddon Time does what it sets out to do. It’s a story about the immigration experience and how racism affects not only people of color but everyone. The message has been told many, many times throughout the history of cinema. Armageddon Time doesn’t stand out among other films from filmmakers detailing their troubled pasts. All the familiar conventions are present. The demanding mother, abusive father, begrudged teacher, loving grandad, and friend of color are ingredients placed in countless films before it. Rather than saying anything more, the picture abruptly cuts to black, where more gaps could be filled. Even so, Armageddon Time is a loving tribute to a difficult upbringing that reflects a never-ending divided nation. One with direct parallels to Fred Trump that’s way too on the nose for the film’s own good.