In the post-Roma glut of prestige directorial autobiographies, James Gray’s Armageddon Time arrives at the tail end of my patience for this zeitgeist-y but self-indulgent mini-genre and, sadly, tests that patience to the limit. It’s clever and well-acted but just so damn drab, grim characters and an even grimmer colour palette taking us back to a childhood that is clearly not very fondly remembered. Gray gets credit, no doubt, for his ‘auteurbiography’ being far less self-congratulatory than most (and for it not also doubling as yet another ‘love letter to cinema’), but it’s still a vision of the past that I found myself mostly thankful to escape.
Gray’s stand-in here is Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a kid just starting sixth grade in 1980 New York, with Ronald Reagan on the TV and the Trump family dominating parts of the city. A troublemaker who wants to be an artist, Paul finds himself butting up against his strict, small-c conservative Jewish parents Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong), acting out in class alongside his Black friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who always faces harsher punishments than Paul for reasons Paul is just starting to figure out.
Armageddon Time feels like a statement of regret for Gray as Paul gradually pulls away from Johnny – particularly once he transfers to a posh private school – leaving his less privileged friend to fend for himself. It’s mostly a clever and powerfully honest admission of white guilt, but one that’s really let down by a pivotal scene that muddies personal sacrifice with systemic bigotry. With the guilt and resentment that flows through the Graff family, they are tough bunch to spend much time with, much less actually like. Paul is a smartass who’s not actually that smart, while both Esther and Irving are thinly-veiled racists who turn to anger and physical violence far too easily.
The exception to this is Paul’s grandpa, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), whose own mother fled the Cossacks in Tsarist Russia to the relative safety of America, a safety that Aaron seeks to pass on to all he can. He’s enthusiastic and kind and Hopkins provides the film a huge energising force whenever he pops up. Hathaway and, particularly, Strong also turn in proper performances, while Repeta makes for one of the year’s most believable kid actors, but their characters are all viewed with such coldness that it’s hard to really care.
This grand bleakness – effective in Gray’s epic stories like Lost City of Z or Ad Astra but anathema to a small family drama like this – extends to the visuals, which are often downright dingy. You can see Gray actively rejecting the sort of neon-soaked technicolour that defines a lot of modern ‘80s nostalgia pieces, and it makes his world feel much more authentic and lived-in as a result, but there’s not much of Armageddon Time that you’ll particularly enjoy looking at. That’s the case with the film as a whole really, an admirably *real* look at a lower-middle-class ‘80s childhood that nonetheless never much thrills or engages the heartstrings, always more clever than it is actually affecting.