On paper, Armageddon Time sounds great. An esteemed director at the helm, a great cast of actors and a tender coming-of-age story? Surely this will make a wonderful pairing with Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, also out this week.
Unfortunately, the execution leaves much to be desired and the film’s less than ideal racial politics leave a bad taste in the mouth. Gray has admitted that Armageddon Time is a very personal film to him and he’s based a lot of it on his own memories and experiences as a Jewish boy growing up in New York in the late 70s.
Paul is the youngest son of the Graff family. He’s a dreamer; often daydreaming and drawing instead of listening in class. When Paul befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an African-American kid with a taste for rebellion, his parents grow worried.
In fact, Paul’s parents reveal their own prejudices against Black people in ways Paul hasn’t seen before. As do his schoolmates and seemingly everyone around him. Paul faces a dilemma; stick by his friend or blend in and cut off all ties with him?
Armageddon Time clearly burrows into Gray’s own guilt over his childhood and his personal relationship to his privilege as well as cultural heritage and the prejudices the Jewish community has faced, and continues to face. Gray’s approach to his own memories just doesn’t make for a very dramatic or entertaining film. There’s nothing here to grab onto; the family stuff is better realised, but the racial injustice Paul witnesses and tries to come to terms with is much more interesting.
Visually, Gray captures the singular magic of the late 70s. The colour palette here is muted and earthly, calming almost. The production design is detailed and lush; Paul’s home feels like a real home rather than a set that the actor’s act within. There’s constantly much to admire in Armageddon Time, but very little to immerse yourself into.
The film is at its best when it focuses on the Graff family dynamics. Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway play Paul’s parents in a pair of nuanced and naturalistic performances. Strong is slightly miscast as the aggressive and rash Irving, but the Succession actor is also able to bring a subtle uncurrent of regret to his characterization.
Hathaway is arguably a little underused but she infuses her part with warmth and motherly love. That being said, the entire cast is overshadowed by the great Anthony Hopkins. As Paul’s closest confidante, he’s effortlessly charming and funny. Although his role is small in terms of screen time, his impact is felt throughout Gray’s film and forms the film’s emotional core.
Banks Repeta is amicable and serviceable as Paul. He conveys the childish, immature idea that you’re completely invincible from the wrongs of the world as a child well, but his character is also irritatingly self-centred. Paul and Irving’s relationship seems ripe for examining; what kind of a role model is Irving to Paul? What do fathers pass down to their sons?
Another interesting element of Gray’s film is how the Jewish Graff family, who most certainly have faced prejudice and discrimination for their religion, adapt to their largely white and privileged community as a mode of survival. It’s easier to target someone than to be a target, but Gray’s handling of the subject is too faint and restrained for it to be effective.
Armageddon Time is frustratingly slow and sluggish. At the end, there’s very little reward to be found and the film crumbles under its own weight. It’s ultimately a film about white guilt with uneasy racial politics that are never explored meaningfully.
Armageddon Time is in cinemas November 18.