Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) knows that something is off about the new private school he was just sent to. Something off, aside from the frigid instructors, the sea of overwhelming adolescent support for Ronald Reagan—the same man Paul’s parents guffaw at on the television—the bad words classmates throw around towards children Paul used to see back in public school and the ominous presence of wealthy donors Fred and Maryanne Trump (John Diehl and Jessica Chastain, respectively, hilariously), who urge the student body to understand that they will have worked hard to get the best that America has to offer them.
In his follow-up to 2019’s interplanetary Ad Astra, James Gray comes hurtling back down to earth: Armageddon Time finds Gray in the well-tread territory of his native New York. In his most personal outing with the city he once felt the need to escape from, he contends with past mistakes and cultural conceptions that, as a child, he could not fathom. We follow Gray’s surrogate, Paul, an unruly but always likable child from a characteristically chaotic, animated Jewish family. His difficulty following rules and idealization of an artist’s life lead some to come to the conclusion that he’s “slow.”
But Paul isn’t slow, he just has difficulty fitting in—not unlike his friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a rebellious Black classmate held back twice, who shares Paul’s penchant for dreaming big and disrespecting authority figures. Paul wants to grow up to be a famous artist, while Johnny fantasizes about joining NASA and walking on the moon. As young actors each with already a handful of titles under their belt, Repeta and Webb hold their own, almost entirely carrying the film themselves and playing off one another beautifully. Charming and exasperating in equal measure, the two are clearly very gifted, evoking the innocence, frustrations and heartbreak of youth with honest emotional depth. Their characters have their heads in the clouds as any child does, and they quickly find solace in their kindred, boisterous spirits.
Of course, the difference between them, the difference that Paul can’t quite comprehend, is that Paul really could grow up to be a famous artist, in spite of the fact that his parents, Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong), would prefer their son seek a vocation that will render him financially sound. Hathaway and Strong are both phenomenal, but it’s Strong’s delicate high-wire act—a goofy caricature of a middle-aged Jewish father who can fly into a violent fit of rage—that both terrifies and astounds. Even then, Paul has the environmental security to foster his passions. And he has the support from family members like Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), his grandfather who, on his own birthday, takes the opportunity to gift Paul a set of quality paints.
On the one hand, Paul understands that he has advantages over Johnny: He insists to his friend that his family is “rich” and can help him out, even though they aren’t really. They’re comfortably middle class and good at sticking to a budget, as Paul’s home ec teacher mother tries explaining to him. But this gives Paul the false perception of vast riches instead of the correct understanding: He has a material privilege that Johnny, from a poor neighborhood and in the care of his ailing grandmother, does not.
Gray does a fair job at handling the film’s issues of race with tact. His aim is to underscore the lack of conception he once had for his privilege of disappearing into acceptable, Christian whiteness—the very kind that his family once fled and has now become complicit in. But as Esther and Irving understand, it’s what you have to do to live out this flawed notion of the American Dream—to get ahead, to give Paul a chance in a rigged system. As a white child, he has an advantage over his Black friend, despite his people once having been systematically slaughtered and still on the receiving end of hatred. In the ‘80s of Armageddon Time (one given a dreamy, nostalgic texture by cinematographer Darius Khondji), the Holocaust is recent history. As Aaron reveals from his own experience—the kind he desperately does not want for his grandson—some would still prefer to keep doors closed to Jewish people if given the chance. It’s beneficial to hide their identity, and they can. Paul can be just another white face.
Still, even from Gray’s clear place of authenticity and discretion, there’s a certain murkiness when it comes to race and a heavy-handedness once Paul’s private school comes into play, with Gray insistent on driving the point home that it’s the big bad Republican school. And the film’s conclusion might come off as a harsh, unsparing denouement that could be construed as serving only to benefit the white character’s newfound understanding of race at the expense of the Black character—even though it’s an honest representation of something that happened in Gray’s life. And, as the story is a portrait of Gray’s life, the character of Johnny is certainly ancillary to Paul. But he’s not fleshless, and Gray breathes life and emotional density into Johnny’s journey. His outcome only signals a tragic lack of clarity. Paul doesn’t really come of age in a film that many have dubbed a “coming-of-age” film. If anything, Paul’s worldview hasn’t been expanded, but further obscured.
By happenstance, Paul encounters Fred Trump on his first day at private school; after Paul’s fraught time in public school reaches a head, his parents do him the “kindness” of sending him to the same WASPy private school they could initially only afford for his brother. Out of nervousness, Paul explains to Trump that his surname was shortened from “Greyzerstein” when his family immigrated from Europe, common practice among Jews attempting to assimilate into safety and remove an obvious target off their backs.
Paul feels out of place in the school full of white, Anglo-Saxon children. He can sense in his heart that he’s an interloper, masquerading in a school meant for the advancement of the kind of people that he isn’t, even if he doesn’t fully understand it. And only his name could reveal this. But the Black children that Paul’s new classmates use slurs to describe don’t have the same cloaking device. Aaron tells his grandson to be a mensch to those kids, to stand up for them when his classmates call them names: “They didn’t have your advantage.”
But in a society that demands you neglect your fellow man to save yourself, the urging of Paul’s grandfather to be a mensch is less an instruction than an unsolvable puzzle. Gray interrogates his younger self, but doesn’t redeem him. Instead, Armageddon Time is a thoughtful examination of one’s own limited perspective of whiteness, expounding upon how a young child’s naivete can be as dangerous as a direct act of prejudice.
Director: James Gray
Writer: James Gray
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Anthony Hopkins
Release Date: October 28, 2022
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.