Directed by: James Gray
Premise: Set in 1980, Paul (Banks Repeta) is a Jewish teenager living in Queens, New York with his extended family. His relationship with his friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb) is strained when Paul transfers to a private school.
What Works: Armageddon Time was written and directed by James Gray who allegedly drew from his own childhood experiences to dramatize a fulcrum point in recent American history. The movie is set in Queens in 1980. The presidential race, which would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan, plays in the background and the story dramatizes how these boys are shaped by the institutions and circumstances around them. At the opening of the story, Paul, who is Jewish, attends a public school with his friend Johnny, who is black. The early portions of the movie effectively set up their friendship. They are class clowns but the fallout of their actions falls much heavier on Johnny than it does on Paul. Their paths diverge when Paul is enrolled in a private school and the class differences force a wedge between them. Armageddon Time is a political film that utilizes the recent past to comment on the present. It’s about how society has arrived at its present destination and the supporting characters include senior members of the Trump family. However, Armageddon Time is never didactic. The filmmakers want us to understand inequality and prejudice as a human matter first, and the personal impact they have on the boys and their families. The focus on human drama makes the political statement that much more effective. Armageddon Time also impresses as a period piece with its temporal detail. The movie looks and feels of 1980 and not in a cute nostalgic way but with a genuine feel for the aesthetics of the time. The performances are also quite good, namely Banks Repeta as Paul and Jaylin Webb as Johnny. They are especially good in quiet moments where we can observe the character’s inner life in the details of their performances. Also notable are Anthony Hopkins as Paul’s grandfather and Jeremy Strong as his dad. From Hopkins we get a vivid sense of love and Strong’s performance is complicated as a flawed man who wants a better life for his son.
What Doesn’t: The only weak element of Armageddon Time is the film’s regard for Johnny and especially his home life. Johnny is nearly homeless. We’re told he is being raised by his grandmother who is not well. However, we only get one very brief scene with Johnny and his grandmother and she does not look severely ill. It’s a strange cutaway. The rest of the picture takes place from Paul’s point of view and he is in virtually every scene except for this brief insert. The filmmakers may have done better to either eliminate this brief scene or to commit to it and depict Johnny’s homelife more fully.
Bottom Line: Coming of age stories are nothing new but Armageddon Time is impressive in its complexity and reach. The film tells a personal story with much bigger implications.
Episode: #928 (November 20, 2022)