This contrast, between a kind of moderately warm sensibility and a banal vibe of “mean streets”, informs many armageddon time itself, which sits at the crossroads of many things: the politics of middle-class respectability versus lower-class rudeness, the terrifying vitality of downtown versus the tidy comfort of the more suburban borough experience Peripheral, 70s blue-collar vibes versus garish 80s consumerism “greed is good”. The very title, “Armageddon Time”, more or less explicitly refers to the latter, Armageddon being here linked to Ronald Reagan’s huge lopsided victory in the 1980 US presidential election, which the film suggests (and I am agree with him) was the pivot of American politics that created the social order that still prevails today (for example, there are two scenes with cameos from members of the Trump family – the two worst scenes in the film, I would say, with the two deciding that it needs to be a film with a more explicit message – which essentially proclaims that Reaganism is a necessary precondition for Trumpism). And he certainly doesn’t think the way things were in 1980 or the way things are in 2022 are in any way good; the central thesis of the film, with all the details summed up, boils down to “things are generally terrible and even if you recognize that they are terrible, the social and economic forces that weigh on you mean that it is almost impossible for you to do anything as an individual to make them better; at the same time, the fundamental rules of morality demand that you keep trying.” I think it’s a pessimistic film more than a nihilistic one, but either way, it’s heavy as hell and terribly prickly and ambivalent. it’s not called armageddon time for nothing.
That being said, what defeats the gloom, which makes this a watchable and at times deeply human film despite its cynicism, is that it is essentially a work of nostalgia – a work of anti-nostalgia, more precisely. Either way, he finds writer-director James Gray, who was an eleven-year-old Jewish child living in Queens in the fall of 1980, telling the story of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a Jewish child from eleven years living in Queens in the fall of 1980. It begins on the first day of sixth grade, when Paul, a lazy student with a propensity for the arts, immediately gravitates towards Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an African-American student. American who has been held back for a year, and so has already arrived in the new year with their teacher (Andrew Polk) ready and willing to treat him as a disruptive influence. At home, Paul is already disrupting things pretty well on his own, having just hit that horrible ugly part of adolescence where he resents having no autonomy when he’s not bright enough to gain such autonomy. And so his days are spent openly disrespecting his mother, PTA member Esther (Anne Hathaway), and more subtly defying his father, plumber Irving (Jeremy Strong). The one family member he loves dearly is his maternal grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), a Ukrainian immigrant who is solely responsible for fostering his artistic aspirations.
I’d say it takes the route you’d most likely expect from a coming-of-age story of a young, sensitive artist, only to arrive at a very unexpected destination. That’s partly because Gray, unlike most filmmakers looking at a young version of himself, doesn’t put any particular energy into portraying Paul as particularly insightful, good, or sensitive. He’s kind of exactly what the adults around him take for him — a lazy underachiever — and he’s sympathetic mostly on the grounds that even lazy underachievers deserve a happy life. But of course, the main point of the movie is that the desert has nothing to do with anything, and that’s what the coming-of-age arc depicts: not the coming of age. , not wisdom, but a horrified realization that functioning as an adult in an unjust world is largely a matter of deciding which moral precepts you can afford to ignore at any given moment. And this injustice goes both ways: Paul is just as disgusted to learn of his undeserved privileges and good fortune as he is of the things that make him powerless or victimized: his age, his religion.
The film’s ambivalence towards all of this is never about what is morally right; In effect, armageddon time is a very morally outraged film, which looks at racial injustice with cold fury and casts Fred Trump (John Diehl) as a black-eyed, oil-stained goblin. Ambivalence is about what it takes do with this knowledge, something he approaches entirely through the eyes of his clumsy and confused protagonist, young enough to need the comforting certainty of absolutes and binaries, and thus subject to deep pain when he discovers that all the adults around him are somehow corrupted by the desire to cling to the comfortable class positions they fought so tenaciously for as unwanted immigrants and children of unwanted immigrants.
It’s all packed into the body of a well-observed piece of memory about a very particular culture in a very particular place at a very particular time. Gray noted that after making a pair of major studio genre films, the 2016 films The Lost City of Z and 2019 Ad Astrahe wanted to get back to basics with something small and character-driven and domestic, and it’s hard to imagine what could fit better than a story about his own childhood, set in such a distinctly realized setting. armageddon time is full of scenes so precise and idiosyncratic that they can only come from a deep intimacy, a knowledge of the characters and their specific behavior in minute detail. There’s a phenomenal dinner scene at the start that sets up an extended family dynamic so perfectly it’s almost uncomfortably real: the way certain characters talk to each other in a way that very obviously started long before that meal, and reflects only those exact interpersonal relationships; there’s a pitched battle surrounding Chinese food that’s as much about whether or not you’re the kind of people who can afford to waste food as it is about parents and kids fighting over the rules.
The writing is precise, as is the construction of this universe by production designer Happy Massee and costume designer Madeline Weeks, evoking not only the late 70s in general, but a specific kind of a little worn version of it, the kind of house where everything is beautiful but a bit old-fashioned. It’s not only good for evoking the specific family we’re looking at, but the exhaustion and the feeling that things are wearing out and reaching the breaking point suggested by the movie’s title, it’s a grim diagnosis of the society, its soft fall cinematography by Darius Khondji, portraying everything in period-appropriate dull browns that feel as much about creating a parched mood as they do about realism. armageddon time is a tired movie, and not at all hopeful about things getting less tired, and the visuals reflect that. But it’s also a lot about the people, where they live and how, and while the film looks worn, there’s also a clear and rich understanding of who these characters are and why even in their flaws and shortcomings. , they are counting. Browns can also be warm, after all, and this tension between moodiness and warmth is a remarkable blend that makes for an incredibly complicated and satisfying viewing experience.
Tim Brayton is the editor and chief reviewer of Alternate Ending. He’s been known to appear on Letterboxd, writing about even more movies than he does here.
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