A common theme has emerged from several of this year’s more serious adult dramas — the idea that the political divides of the day (race, immigration, inequality) were seeded in the 1980s. That is certainly a topic suggested by Sam Mendes‘ upcoming feature Empire of Light, and it is front and center in another semi-autobiographical tale, the coming-of-age film Armageddon Time from Ad Astra director James Gray.
The film finds Gray examining his childhood, from growing up in a Jewish diaspora in Queens in the early ’80s and the challenges of being a religious minority in New York at the time, to the even greater threats faced by a Black classmate he befriends. He also dramatizes more mundane, personal experiences with his caring grandfather (a perfect Anthony Hopkins), his neurotic mother (Anne Hathaway), and his difficult father (Jeremy Strong). The sum total is a moving tale that effectively deals with challenging subject matter and also pulls on the heartstrings.
Armageddon Time is the story of young Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) and, at first glance, the trouble he gets into while attending a public school, where he dreams of becoming an artist and hits it off with Johnny (Jaylin Webb) a well-meaning Black boy who is one of the few kids to treat Paul with respect, which he returns in kind. Johnny lives with his grandmother and is picked on not just by other kids, but by the system itself, including, most notably, racist schoolteachers. Paul’s problems are, by contrast, far less pressing, though Gray’s screenplay does a wonderful job of thoughtfully portraying both sides of this divide. To an objective observer, Johnny’s race-driven problems are, of course, more unjust than Paul’s, but that does not make the latter’s struggle any less real.
Or race-driven, for that matter. Paul’s daily family life is punctuated by hectic visits and dinners with his grandmother Mickey and his grandfather Aaron (Hopkins). Most of them survived the Holocaust or lost close family members in that racially-driven tragedy. As a result, they’ve become more insular — suspicious of others, if not outright racist themselves, at least in their ways of describing other local immigrant communities as well as African Americans. Once again, Grey’s script deftly navigates a landmine of modern, cancellable offenses without tripping any wires, successfully presenting people as complex, rather than easily paintable with a single brush based on a predetermined factor.
Eventually, Paul and Johnny get into too much trouble for Paul’s hysterical mother, who swiftly enrolls him in the private school attended by Paul’s older brother. Paul wishes to be an artist, which his parents do not support, and he misses Johnny, whose own troubles mount by the minute. Around them, a ghoul emerges in the form of newly-elected President Ronald Reagan, whose government, Paul’s liberal family members decry, is driven by “a bunch of morons.”
Gray is telling us, like many filmmakers are finally starting to realize, that America’s current slate of problems began not with, say, the 2016 election that was displeasing to about half the country, or even the hotly-contested 2000 election that many political junkies also point to as the beginning of extreme polarization. Instead, Gray realizes — too late, perhaps? — that this divide began a long time ago when neoclassical economics and race-baiting first sent us down our current path. In other words, Gray sees his own childhood as a time of both youthful innocence and grave danger. In that sense, it offers a perfect coming-of-age story. Jessica Chastain even has a small cameo as a historically-adjacent figure who punctuates the obvious correlation between yesterday’s political outcomes and today’s societal divisions.
Tech-wise, kudos belong to Costume Designer Madeline Weeks and Production Designer Happy Massee. Weeks does a great job turning Hathaway into an ’80s mom, dressing her in long skirts, plaid sweaters, and vests, and giving her the look of a classy lady who also tried to dress above her socioeconomic status. Weeks also designs some evocative suits and hats for Hopkins, who makes the most of his limited screen time, which is still enough for the two-time Oscar winner to showcase his undeniable talent. Similarly, Massee constructs sets and interiors that really take you back to what Queens must have felt like in the early ’80s, and the production design is most effective when it contrasts the luxuries of Paul’s private school with that of the public school he leaves behind. That divide becomes a sort of central motif in a script filled with them, and the poignancy of the sets — the subtle but visible contrast between the dilapidated and the shiny — is an important part of achieving that contrast.
Armageddon Time also features a quietly moving score from Christopher Spelman, as well as shadowy lighting courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji (Uncut Gems, The Lost City of Z), who in his vast experience knows exactly how to make something feel ethereally nostalgic, as he does here.
The reality though, is that the strength of this film lies almost entirely in its sincere and improbably tactful script, as well as the strong acting from its talented ensemble. Hathaway has grown well into the middle-aged woman role, and she is not only persuasive but incredibly emotive as a concerned, guarded, and overly zealous mother. Strong is also, well, strong, as an inherently unlikable if well-meaning father. It is clear from some of Grey’s past work (including the sci-fi film Ad Astra) that he has complicated daddy issues, and Strong’s stern but loving performance may shed some light on those. Hopkins is a delight in another tearjerking performance, though perhaps the strongest accolades should be directed at the film’s young star, Banks Repeta, who goes toe-to-toe with one of the most celebrated thespians of our time.
It’s too soon to say what kinds of stories this aging, post-boomer generation of cineastes will grace us with. We know that the Baby Boomer generation, as it aged, spoke of war and violence, and the scars and memories that through their parents, had been imparted to them. They spoke of the nostalgia of the ’50s — as, say, Steven Spielberg recently did with his own semi-autobiographical film, The Fabelmans.
A younger generation than theirs — one born in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps on the cusp of the dreaded “millennial” label — is now growing older as well. If this year’s films are any indication, there is a decent amount of nostalgia laced with regret in the themes of their oeuvre. They are suffused with the happy moments from their childhoods, though they come wrapped in the unhappy realization that some of the problems that they have decried as adults actually surrounded them as children.
They seem to be asking: “Could we have prevented this? Did we do enough to nip it in the bud?” And while it would be easy to dismiss this as liberal or privileged guilt, it is anything but in Armageddon Time, which is nothing short of remarkable. It is simply the story of a boy who remembers his own shortcomings and who does not try to overcome them with empty, modern gestures today.
Focus Features will release Armageddon Time in select U.S. theaters on Oct. 28 before the film opens wide on Nov. 4.