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Armageddon Time sees Gray Return to his Roots, and his Best

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Armageddon Time screening provided by Universal Pictures

“Armageddon Time is emotionally devastating in ways that evolve beautifully over time, lingering long in the heart like a crucial memory.”

Enough time has passed for the defining Covid film trope to arise; the longtime director making a self portrait about what made them the way they are. The trend did begin to appear in recent years in 2018 with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, followed by Joanna Hogg’s 2019 The Souvenir, (with a subsequent sequel in 2021), but it appears in full swing this year. These films include Empire of Light (2022) by Sam Mendes, Bardo (2022) by Allejandro Iñárritu, The Fablemans (2022) by Steven Spielberg, and now Armageddon Time (2022) by James Gray. 

Clear eyed in its view of the birth of Reagan’s America, Armageddon Time shows three generations of a Jewish American family and how their upbringings converge and conflict with one another’s in 1980s Queens. Centred in this story is Gray’s stand-in, the sixth-grader Paul (Banks Repeta), who is trying to figure out his life along with his developing passions as an artist. Filling out the family are his parents Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong), older brother Ted (Ryan Sell), Aunt Ruth (Marcia Haufrecht), and the anchor of the Graff’s, grandfather Aaron, played by the extraordinary Anthony Hopkins.

Paul is assured yet vulnerable, making for a compelling lead, one that can be difficult to be with at times in the film. Gray puts us into an oscillating vantage point of subjectivity and objectivity with Paul that gives Armageddon Time a unique energy that takes time to settle into. Even the casting of Hopkins as the grandfather works as a form of subjectivity with Paul, who views his grandfather as a totemic figure in his life.

Armageddon Time is emotionally devastating in ways that evolve beautifully over time, lingering long in the heart like a crucial memory. What allows the emotion to thrive is the outstanding cast that could all individually contend come awards season. A gorgeous ensemble that introduced layers of nuance and understanding to each character over the runtime, highlighted by Repeta and Hopkins.

Too often these autobiographical features fall into traps of self aggrandisement and self defensiveness, something Gray feels conscious of within every scene. Gray uses this opportunity to excavate and interrogate his past in an impressively honest way, while still attempting to convey these experiences had by an 11-year-old boy. This is a difficult line to toe and can, for the most part, feel both insightful and honest, but at other times, can feel like an easy out for these questions on race that the film seeks to entangle. These issues do not disqualify the film, but do offer probing, difficult questions to the audience that are all too rare in modern American cinema. 

There is one major aspect of Armageddon Time that is sure to void the merits of the entire film, something that will depend on the individual audience member, and that is the character of Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb). Johnny is Paul’s Black friend from public school that he is constantly getting into trouble with, and it is immediately clear that the pair are viewed differently by the teachers and adults in the neighbourhood.

It would be so easy to lump Armageddon Time into all the other white films where the protagonist learns about racism through their Black friend. But this is no Green Book (2018). Paul does not begin the film with prejudice which gets systematically removed from his bloodstream due to the time spent with their Black friend. And, while Paul ultimately benefits from his friendship with Johnny who has been failed by every part of the American system, there is tangible guilt and understanding from Gray and Paul in these moments that says, yes, we acknowledge we are operating as many of these contrived films have, but we are coming at this with a personal truth that people did experience. 

Johnny is not really given adjacency in this film, emphasised with only a singular scene with his grandmother from his perspective, but even this feels true to a situation of the moment. Is the entire point of Armageddon Time’s pessimistic yet astute storytelling not to show the limitations of both Paul’s perspective growing up in this time, but also of the time itself in how it removes adjacency from Johnny’s life?

Gray has set this film in a shifting era in American life: viewed at the time as a great opportunity for all, in reality, wage growth has stagnated since 1979 while all of the economic growth has gone to the wealthy few. The brilliance of Armageddon Time is how Gray shows us the Graff starving to be part of this wealthy elite via the Trump backed private school, with Paul at just 11 being forced to reckon with his place in this shifting landscape.

(L to R) Jaylin Webb stars as Johnny Crocker and Michael Banks Repeta stars as Paul Graff in director James Gray's ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Focus Features

(L to R) Jaylin Webb stars as Johnny Crocker and Michael Banks Repeta stars as Paul Graff in director James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Focus Features

Visually, the film is gorgeous. After opting for the widescreen brilliance of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema for Ad Astra, Gray’s frequent collaborator Darius Khondji returns to give the film a balanced yet tactile quality to the period of 1980 Queens. Khondji has worked with some of the greatest living filmmakers in Wong Kar Wai (My Blueberry Nights), Paul Thomas Anderson (Anima), and Michael Haneke (Amour, Funny Games), giving each collaboration a different voice, but one that always amplifies its material. Capturing the beautiful hues of orange and green of Autumnal New York that somehow feel remorseful, Khondji heightens both the boyhood wonder on display, and the sharp bladed truths shown on screen.

Perhaps the best shot of the year comes from Armageddon Time, with a beautifully composed canvas of a young boy chasing a landing toy rocket ship he made with his grandfather in the park, with his mother’s sedan waiting patiently deep in the background. The shot is the entire story in miniature, from Paul’s relationship to his grandfather, to Jonny’s influence on Paul and how that is wrapped up into his relationship with his family, to Esther’s (something about her relationship to her family in relation to her being in the distance in a car).

There is a clear eyed final scene between Paul and his father Irving that shows how deeply he is a product of the emerging Reagon-era American Dream thinking, where you use your privileges to get ahead, oftentimes to the detriment of someone else worse off. This is very much a ‘for your consideration’ speech for Strong, who plays confidently misguided people with a seering acuteness. This is a white guilt film, but it reckons with every aspect of that, coming to a greater understanding at its conclusion that isn’t clean and rewarding for Paul, but feels deeply earned.

It’s interesting how the self conflating nature of self portraiture in art is only seen as indulgent in film. Maybe due to the scale of production required for film over music or painting, or the fact a director is tasked with casting actors with portraying their younger selves and family. In Armageddon Time, Gray reflects on his upbringing with the understanding of an old soul, achieving a form of memory piece that could be shown as an American styling of the great Terence Davies films. Whilst Davies operates his films like memory poems, combining his signature visual motifs with the harsh realities of his youth, Gray uses his emotionality to sweeten the childlike moments of Armageddon Time, but never removes the acidic elements altogether, allowing the audience to experience the full banquet of emotions on display.

Armageddon Time is open-hearted without ever feeling purely saccharine in similar ways to Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (2021), even if structurally the films are quite similar. There is a deep truth to the experiences felt in this deeply emotional journey of a changing America through the lens of a multi-generational Jewish family that allows tropes and problematic cliches to be accepted honestly, whereas in lesser films these issues would sink the whole experience.

Armageddon Time opens nationally from the 3rd of November, 2022.

Contributors

Darcy Read

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