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James Gray’s Armageddon Time Is Tender, But Doesn’t Allow Viewers to Make Peace With Our Imperfect World

8 minute read

It’s conveniently noble to think that human beings are shaped by their actions, that decisiveness is what makes us who we are. Yet the times we failed to act are often what we remember most vividly. There’s the merest synapse leap between wanting to do the right thing and actually doing it, and a civilization can rise or fall depending on how many people are willing to bridge that gap.

James Gray’s quietly extraordinary Armageddon Time—playing in competition at the 75th Cannes Film Festival—is all about that gap. It’s also about growing up in Queens circa 1980, about parents who want the best for their children sometimes, inadvertently, at the expense of other people’s children, about the way things an adult might carelessly say can crush a kid. It’s about a time and a place—a household, a borough, a city, a country—where people find themselves at a moral turning point even as they’re making dinner or sitting at a school desk or spending time with a beloved grandparent in the park. The idea, maybe, is that our moral turning points are mostly small moments, not big ones.

That’s a lot of weight for a movie to hold. Yet Gray, one of our finest filmmakers—as the French know, even if moviegoers in the States have been slow to catch on to marvels like The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z—has shaped Armageddon Time with such a light touch that the movie is almost half over before you realize much of anything at all has happened. And even when it’s finished, it’s not quite finished; it’s as if the movie itself were a traveler in a folk tale, still on its way to a place, a future, that we haven’t quite reached.

The movie’s unformed hero, its young James Gray stand-in, is P.S. 173 sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a bright kid with dreams of grandeur—he wants to be a famous artist—but who fails to apply himself in school. He’s dreamy and distracted and smart-alecky, which gets him in trouble with his teacher, an irascible blank named Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk). But there’s another student whom Mr. Turkeltaub dislikes even more: Johnny (Jaylin Webb) is another bright kid who fails to apply himself, but not for the same reasons Paul does. Johnny is one of very few Black students in the class, which makes him an automatic outsider. He’s also an entertainer at heart, an attention seeker. When Mr. Turkeltaub takes attendance, Johnny identifies himself, using a phony British accent, as “Bond—James Bond,” a dumb sixth-grader joke that he lands with the finesse of a junior Sean Connery.

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But Johnny’s been set up to fail, and he knows it. This is his second time around in sixth grade, as Mr. Turkeltaub mockingly reminds him, and the class. Paul gravitates toward this fellow troublemaker, who loves NASA and dreams of becoming part of it, even though he has no idea how to get there. When Paul decrees, with the all-seeing discernment of a true 12-year-old, that “disco sucks,” Johnny asks, with barely a blink, if he knows about the Sugar Hill Gang, now seen as outrageously influential but at the time just breaking through, on the street and in dance clubs. Paul is the kid who thinks he knows things; Johnny is the kid who actually knows them.

That makes Paul an overconfident, if anxious, screwup. At home, he rejects the meal prepared by his harried mom, Esther (Anne Hathaway), and, against her orders, grabs the phone to order dumplings from the local Chinese joint. His dad, Irving (Jeremy Strong), who wears an outmoded crew cut and repairs boilers for a living, tries but usually fails to keep order. (He also has trouble keeping his temper in check, but Strong makes sure his decency and love for his family comes through.) Paul has an older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), who goes to private school and who doesn’t seem to like his younger sibling that much, though Gray signals that he’s not all bad—he’s the one who has brought the Raincoats’ sublime anthem of dislocation “Fairytale in the Supermarket” into the household, so we know there’s something going on under the hood there.

But Paul will listen to no one except his grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), an English transplant whose mother had escaped anti-Semitic persecution, and personal tragedy, decades earlier in Ukraine. Aaron sees all that’s special about Paul, things Paul can’t yet see in himself. When Esther suggests that art can be a hobby but not a career for Paul, Aaron buys him good acrylic paints. (He brings this gift to his grandson on his own birthday.) Paul also gets a celebratory back-to-school present in the form of a model rocket, that he and his grandfather later launch in the park—it zings into the sky, and seems to ignite Paul’s delight in the possibilities of life.

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Aaron, played with luminous, lived-in warmth by Hopkins, is gentle, thoughtful, and funny, but his truest gift is that his eyes are open every minute. After Paul gets yanked from public school and sent to the same august, deadly institution his brother attends (an officious Fred Trump is a highly visible trustee, which tells you something), Paul confesses that he’s committed a sin of omission against his old friend Johnny, whom he’s all too conveniently left behind. Aaron sets him straight, with a sternness unmarred by sanctimoniousness. He’s one of those deeply kind souls that you might think are invented just for the movies, unless you’ve known one yourself.

Paul is both porous and stubborn, but above all, he’s still just a kid. He’s tall for his age, with beanpole legs, but he’s not one of these preternaturally wise children: his face, sweet yet quizzical, perpetually looks as if he’s thinking things through, and sometimes coming up with the wrong answer. Repeta’s performance is wonderful, but it was Webb’s that broke me. When Johnny is with Paul, his face radiates joyous openness—almost as if he held the unacknowledged belief that if he sticks close enough to his white friend, the good things that happen to white people, as opposed to the bad things that happen to a Black kid like him, will be his destiny too.

But one person after another lets Johnny down—even, indirectly, Paul’s parents, who are the kind of good citizens who deplore the ascent of Ronald Reagan. They’re liberal, to a point, and adamantly “not racist”—as long as there are no Black people in their own backyard. And Paul can’t see that if he gets into a scrape with the law, he’ll have a way out; Johnny won’t. To watch Johnny’s face as he sees one door after another close on him—to see the blank self-protectiveness that clouds his eyes—is to see the absolute coldness of our own country at work.

There’s some joyousness in Armageddon Time: a rambunctious family dinner, the utter ridiculousness of the way killjoy Mr. Turkeltaub sternly informs his listless students that “gym is a privilege,” the way Paul stands before a Kandinsky on a school field trip to the Guggenheim and sees his own glorious future its brash lines, its bold candy slices of color. And still, I came away from Armageddon Time wanting to cry, as if it had opened wounds of regret in me too. You could compare Armageddon Time to autobiographical reflections like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma or, to a lesser extent, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, both stories in which kids’ eyes are suddenly opened to the unfairness of the world. But for all its tenderness, this isn’t a movie that allows you to make peace with yourself, or with our highly imperfect world. The next failure to act could be just around the corner. Better be ready for it.

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