Armageddon Time was reviewed out of the Cannes Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
The early ‘80s was a strange and anxious time. Mounting tensions between Russia and the West hung in the air, with the threat of all-out nuclear war on everybody’s minds. It was stranger still to grow up at this time – experiencing the ups and downs of young adulthood alongside the creeping dread of the end times. A warts-and-all vignette of a specific moment in time, Armageddon Time takes a long, slow look back at this era through the life of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) – a stand-in for director James Gray, who finds himself growing up during one of the most tumultuous periods of modern history… even if he doesn’t really know it.
Paul makes for an interesting lead: sensitive yet cocky, moral yet cowardly. Reflecting on his own childhood, Gray approaches his coming-of-age with muted authenticity. A grainy palette of greys and browns dominate the shots, pulling you into this world he lived through alongside a bunch of authentic performances from the likes of Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong.
Taking a step back from the sci-fi musings of Ad Astra, Gray has created his most personal work yet in Armageddon Time. The tensions of the Cold War are almost a metaphor for the tensions within Paul (and by extension, Gray himself). He’s on the brink of finding his feet, torn between falling in line and standing up for what he believes in.
And those references to the Cold War are everywhere. Paul’s friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb) wants to be a NASA astronaut — a subtle reminder of the space race. His collection of NASA mission stickers tugs at nostalgia for those who grew up in the era. On the surface, Armageddon Time is a long, drawn-out take on a very personal note. Gray deftly explores that very specific version of Queens from the 1980s that he grew up in.
However, there’s plenty of social commentary too. The United States is on the verge of the first Reagan presidency, and you can see the unfiltered attitudes of early ‘80s Americans take hold as the film crawls slowly through this specific point in Paul’s life. His family, while accustomed to the persecution that comes with being Jewish, display that subtle racism that children of the decade will know all too well. The almost hushed mentions of Paul’s Black friend, who is obviously leading him astray… even if it’s all Paul’s idea in the first place. His family is quick to cast judgment… all except for Paul’s grandpa (Anthony Hopkins).
Hopkins is once again in fine form, on a roll of great performances since The Father. He’s the not-quite archetypical patriarch who loves spending time with a mischievous grandson. And it’s with a deft hand that Hopkins paints the picture of a man who has lived through so much. He’s a bedrock for Paul and gets some wonderful monologues and speeches throughout, giving pause to both Paul and the audience as we reflect on what makes us a good person.
Unfortunately, Armageddon Time stops short of offering any kind of satisfying conclusion.
Much like Gray’s subtle Cold War references, we’re also drip-fed the story of a family that doesn’t quite live up to the American dream. At first glance, Esther (Hathaway) is a typical suburban mom. But her performance draws us in, giving us hints that everything isn’t alright. The subtle rage in Strong’s not-so-perfect father figure is equally astounding.
Racism is rife throughout the film, with authorities, friends, and even Paul’s family quick to judge the so-called troublesome Black boy he’s associating with. One of the main themes of Armageddon Time is in the danger of history repeating itself. Grandpa warns of the complicity of good men who do nothing, and all the while, his father encourages him to be better than him. There’s a quiet, unspoken violence to his relationship with his father… but even in moments when Paul is offered help, the story pulls away at the last moment, leaving us hanging on the brink of a resolution. Again, it goes back to the film’s Cold War metaphor.
But the back and forth can only sustain the story for so long, and by the end of Armageddon Time, you might be left wondering – what’s the message here? The truth is, there probably isn’t one. Armageddon Time offers no solutions – which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it leaves the film feeling mostly directionless and occasionally frustrating, even if beautifully so. It’s merely a look back at a moment in time, a landscape painted in broad strokes by a director who wants to revisit his past rather than confront it. In many ways, James Gray and Paul Graff are one and the same, caught on the brink of taking a stand.
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Repeta makes the role his own, vacillating between wide-eyed wonder and terror as the oppressive world of 1980s America forces him to retreat into fantastical musings. But Hopkins leads the cast as Grandpa regales Paul with rousing speeches and words of wisdom.
Armageddon Time is an interesting glimpse at a very specific moment in time. For those who grew up in the early ‘80s, it will be all too familiar. But for everyone else, the film risks it all to paint a slow-moving picture of an era lost to time. While it’s great at painting some creeping tension, you might be left wondering what exactly is the point of it all? Just like all-out nuclear war.