James Gray’s Armageddon Time is a movie about a Queens, New York, childhood, inspired by the filmmaker’s own. It’s the 1980s, and Paul (Banks Repeta) is a redheaded middle schooler with an artistic streak, born to a hard-working Jewish family, raised and provided for by his lovably flawed parents (played by Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) and a grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust, whomm he adores (Anthony Hopkins). He’s a good kid who means well. He listens to the stories of his grandfather with sincere curiosity. He inspires his father’s anger, but knows to regret it.
Armageddon Time is in large part about what happens after Paul befriends a Black classmate, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), and the two boys ease their way into a complicated friendship, one overly prescribed by their respective races and class backgrounds and the time and place in which both young men live. This is the Reagan decade. Now is the time for the country (and, specifically, the city) to pull its way out of the dark ages of the Seventies. It is the time of a nation trying to convince its citizens that everyone has an equal chance to prosper. One of the tragedies of the world that Armageddon Time depicts can be found in its sense of how willingly some people, taking the country at its word, take the bait.
Thus there are things that Armageddon Time does not have to say. Johnny lives with his grandmother and comes from a family that doesn’t have much in the way of money. Paul’s family, meanwhile, is trying — striving — to move upwards. Money is going to be the responsibility of Paul and his brother, who are expected to go to school and get great grades if for no other reason than to secure the kind of future for themselves that would make their parents’ efforts — and, implicitly, their grandparents’ survival, and the entire, unholy mess of the 20th century — come to mean something. It is the job of the children of immigrants to make their parents’ sacrifices worth it.
And it is also the job of adults to understand the world in ways that children cannot. One of the mighty but silent tensions at the heart of Armageddon Time is the gap between the regretful understanding of an adult and the impulsive immediacy of a child. The movie is heavy with a sense of shame — shame easily mistaken, and written off, as mere white guilt. But something more despairing is at play in Gray’s conception of this story. White guilt is what might happen when you’ve taken the privilege of your race entirely for granted. You wielded it unthinkingly. You didn’t earn it; you didn’t know that it would have to be earned. The shame at the heart of Armageddon Time is the shame of an adult mired in recollections of the past, who now sees all the blaring evidence of a whiteness that was not promised and had to be chiseled out of the misfortunes of others — in this case, of boys like Johnny.
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Armageddon Time’s drama is, on the surface, straightforward. Paul goofs around, gets in trouble, gets away with things that he shouldn’t under the specter of parents who seem anxious over their son’s recklessness. They’re trying to wring a promising future from this boy, which means, among other things, tamping down his dreams of being an artist, shipping him off to a “better school,” making him become the kind of kid who lugs around a briefcase and slicks back his hair. The film is a lot of things, but it’s most intently a dive into a Jewish teen’s racial education. Gray, working in a slightly autobiographical mode, understands what Paul does not. He knows how things will end when Johnny loses his place to stay and Paul, who simply wants to help a friend, lets him hang out in the shed behind their house without telling his parents, resulting in one of the movie’s most anxiety-inducing scenes. And he knows what’s happening when Paul is shipped off to an essentially all-white private school (precisely because of how white the school is) by parents who could also plausibly say that they do not have a racist bone in their bodies.
There’s a mix here of the obvious and not, the sentimental and not. No one can miss the irony of Paul and his new classmates sitting down to guest lectures about success from powerful people bearing the name Trump. But the point of even this scene is to alert us to all the ways that the noxiousness of this political logic was, at a certain time, for certain people, incredibly appealing. Aspirational, even. Armageddon Time is about precisely these fractures, these choices: the decisions that a Jewish family makes because it feels it has to; the people left behind when they do.
This isn’t Gray’s first study of white ethnic New York. Little Odessa (1994) was set in Brighton Beach; The Yards in the Bronx; The Immigrant took us to Ellis Island. Gray was born in Flushing. He can be sentimental, which is the risk of classically-styled melodrama. And he is no stranger to the risk of sentiment that leans on nostalgia. Family is one of the more powerful anchors of Gray’s movies. The same is true here, not only because you can tell that the film’s ideas are incredibly personal for the director, but also because of his actors. Much has already been made of Jeremy Strong as a stern father whose strictness has purpose — it is born of fear but also, given the film’s ideas, of the painful desperation of an outsider. Hathaway is also good, convincing as a parent whose more difficult choices have no absolutely right answers. Hopkins shines as a grandfather who always has a glint in his eye, a man capable of all-encompassing love despite a world intent on extinguishing that love.
But the key performance here belongs to Jaylin Webb, in a role that’s been criticized for being too spare — a criticism that isn’t without merit, but which risks conflating screen time with depth and doesn’t do nearly enough to consider how much of a role’s depth belongs to the actor rather than the script. The pure, uncomfortable fact is that, being Black and Jewish, neither Johnny nor Paul is white enough, privileged enough. Both are made to feel it. One has a chance to do something about it; the other becomes collateral damage, punished for making a friend. The heartbreaking thing about Webb’s performance is that his take on Johnny is a kid who’s jaded enough to know what’s up, but still enough of a kid to behave naively. He does things that he “shouldn’t,” not because they’re so damnably wrong, but because the risks for him are not the same as they are for a kid like Paul. The movie makes you wish Johnny lived in a world that afforded him the right to make mistakes.
Armageddon Time works because it hurts, not despite that hurt. The shame from behind the camera is hyperpresent. It’s disconcerting how steadily the movie hums along, pantomiming a well-crafted and thoroughly imagined family drama, until its final act, when its politics become unavoidable and the pain of identity rings clear. Privilege, as this movie examines it, is really a matter of leverage. The people denied that leverage will only hold it firmer in their grip once they finally get a taste. Armageddon Time isn’t a movie about bad people or good people. It’s more shocking because it’s more banal: It’s a movie about people. It doesn’t excuse peoples’ choices. But it knows that it cannot change them.
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