Film review: Armageddon Time (2022), written and directed by James Gray
tl;dr: Naive sixth-grader in 1980s New York learns about white privilege, but it’s really good.
It’s Queens, New York, in 1980. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is starting sixth grade. His teacher, Mr Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), isn’t too amused by the boy’s sense of humour and inattentive doodling, but he’s even less amused by Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb). Johnny is at his second attempt at doing sixth grade now, and lives with his poorly – and poor – grandmother. Even the mildest of sixth-grader outbursts from him gets punished, because the teacher seems to have something against him, which may or may not be related to the colour of his skin.
Paul’s mother (Anne Hathaway) is on the school’s PTA board, which means she practically runs the school if you ask Paul. His father (Jeremy Strong) is in the plumbing business and seems to have done quite well for himself. Older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) goes to a fancy private school to get ahead in life. The only person who really seems to get through to Paul is his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins).
We follow Paul as he navigates wanting to be an artist, skive off from the Guggenheim visit to go play arcade games and buy records, building rockets with grandpa, being a concerned friend, and being … well, a kid. He’s at times a pretty annoying kid, but he is, fundamentally, definitely just a kid. He has a good heart and means well, but lacks that sense of “actions have consequences” that you tend to develop in the process of growing up.
And it’s surprisingly watchable. I didn’t necessarily think I’d enjoy Armageddon Time based on the premise of a coming of age story of a 12-year-old in Queens in 1980, because that’s not the sort of film I’d generally be interested in, but I did enjoy it.
Was Paul a spoiled and surprisingly ignorant brat a lot of the time? Yes. Banks Repeta really made him come alive, because if he wasn’t a good actor you wouldn’t have been so frustrated with his character. Top marks. Jaylin Webb may have had a smaller role, but he nailed it. Johnny was more nuanced as a character, and boy did he deliver! Johnny shows a lot more emotional maturity – but at the same time he’s also still very much just a child, but one that’s been forced to grow up before his time.
Saw someone complaining about the film being too dark, in the sense that you can hardly see anything. I don’t think that’s entirely fair, to be honest. I mean, yes, the film is very brown and full of dark, muted colours, but the aesthetic of the early 1980s meant a lot of dark brown interiors.
The strangest inclusion of characters has to be Fred (John Diehl) and Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain), who are involved with the private school Ted goes to. For anyone else who’s wondering – yes, they’re related to That Trump; father and older sister respectively. It’s funny when you know that their ancestor also used to have a different surname.
The mother (Hathaway) and grandfather (Hopkins) were both very sympathetic characters who played their parts very well. The father (Strong) was … definitely a mixed bag. It got really disorienting at times. There’s a guy looking a lot like Reece Shearsmith, but definitely isn’t him. But why do I recognise the voice? I’m sure I must have heard it somewhere. Then it hit me. It’s because his voice sounds so much like Dominic Chianese as Junior Soprano at times that the guy could easily do impressions! But the character? Needs some serious therapy.
I previously enjoyed another James Gray film, The Immigrant, so when I was reminded that this was one of his, I figured we’d be in safe hands. And we were. Armageddon Time is a little bit like a time capsule. I may have been watching because of someone in the cast list, but the fact that I watched about 75% of it before I even remembered that’s why I chose to watch it in the first place, so by the time Domenick Lombardozzi showed up in a small role right near the end, it was more like a cherry on top. I love it when you find absolute gems of films because of the casting, especially when it’s something you wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to watch. This is absolutely one of those films.
It’s a touching grandfather/grandson story on the one hand, and on the other a story of friendship and “well, you’re white so you’re clearly a good kid who made a mistake, so we’ll let you off, but that black kid is obviously a criminal who should be locked up” and a child realising the unfairness of that, but being powerless to do anything about it. It’s not the kind of film I thought it was going to be – it was better!
4 out of 5 NASA stickers.