‘Armageddon Time’ Is a Profound Journey Through Childhood’s Lasting Lessons

Our memories of childhood can swerve between being linear or encompassing certain, brief moments that linger. That is the feeling one gets when watching “Armageddon Time,” a reflective movie about being a kid in 1980s New York City that doesn’t go for too many bombastic moments or even blunt tear-jerkers. We can instantly sense most of this film is taken from the personal memories of its writer-director, James Gray, who is known for visual elegance and dreamlike moods, yet here Gray keeps it stark while adding a particular kind of tenderness. The young boys at the center of the story are not wheels in a plot, but individuals that we are spending time with as they begin grappling with how real life is uglier and messier, only revealing itself when we really start growing up.

Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is 12-years-old and living in 1980 Queens in a tightly knit, working class Jewish family. His mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), teaches home economics while his father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), is a boiler repairman. They are part of that generation descended from immigrants like Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), who made it out of Eastern Europe at a young age with fresh memories of violent antisemitism. Now they expect Paul and his older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), to reach America’s glittering middle class heights. But Paul is a born artist who loves to paint and draw, while becoming bored and restless at school, to the frustration of teachers like Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk). Public schools are also becoming more integrated and Mr. Turkeltaub is already openly prejudiced to the class’s only Black student, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb). Paul strikes an immediate bond with Johnny and their friendship will become a real first test for facing a world of contradictions.

More than anything, “Armageddon Time” is about a particular time and place. The title is taken from the apocalyptic, anti-Soviet rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, who Paul’s liberal family dreads as they watch his presidential campaign on the evening news. “I did all this research on the ‘80s in New York,” Webb tells Entertainment Voice. “To be honest, I feel I didn’t have to do much of it. Google didn’t give me much. What really helped was walking on set and seeing how it was designed. It came alive, it really helped. It was a different time with no internet. This movie was like walking into a time machine.” With refined subtly, Gray’s screenplay brings across the mindsets of characters inhabiting a particular decade as well. Even when they are endearing, the personalities are not romanticized. Paul’s Jewish elders feel the shadow of the Holocaust culturally (World War II had only been a little over three decades prior), and yet the older relatives at the table fear the arrival of Black Americans in the local neighborhoods and schools. Esther is a committed liberal, but when Paul gets into serious trouble at school for his antics, including sharing a joint with Johnny in a boys’ restroom, she can’t help but let it slip that it must be because Paul is now friends with a Black kid. It is Aaron, the older, wiser head of the family, who doesn’t care to be racist, because he’s experienced the brutality of it firsthand. 

“I listened to the song ‘Rapper’s Delight’ over a hundred times to get into the world of the story,” Banks Repeta tells Entertainment Voice. “What made the older actors great was how comfortable they made us. Anthony Hopkins was amazing. I had real chemistry with him. We even learned to salsa dance together. He advised me to always speak clearly, because that’s how you make yourself heard. It was genuinely fun working with him.” That sort of camaraderie is evoked by Hopkins with that special touch he has always brought to these kinds of roles. There is a hint here of his aged traveler who befriends a young boy in “Hearts in Atlantis,” with a wisdom in his eyes formed by genuine life experience. He’s not cheesy in “Armageddon Time,” because Gray writes him as one of those good people we can be so lucky to have in our lives. And yes, even those can break our hearts, as when Aaron admits he agrees with Esther that maybe Paul should go to private school. When we are children living in our fantasies is even easier. Paul wants to be a great artist while Johnny dreams of being an astronaut, but life may not let them get there. 

As a director, James Gray has lately been a filmmaker of grand gestures, whether with period pieces like the lush “The Immigrant” to 2019’s sci-fi opus “Ad Astra” starring Brad Pitt. “Armageddon Time” feels completely personal and while it’s wonderfully shot by master cinematographer Darius Khondji, it never hides behind style. There is a Proustian spirit to its microcosmic stories and observations. In life we can brush aside important names without realizing it, as when Paul is made to attend his brother’s private school and at an assembly everyone gets a pep talk from Fred Trump (John Diehl) and Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain). These two are indeed the parents of our infamous 45th president. They preach American work ethic and values like a capitalist gospel. Paul has no way of knowing who he’s looking at and the movie behaves the same way. What he does learn is the hard road of being yourself in a conformist society. When Johnny visits him at his new school, Paul panics and pretends not to know him. The rich kids use the N word their parents surely taught them. It is Paul’s first real taste of genuine social pressure. Life seemed easier at his old school, where the only threat was being sent to the principal’s office by the grouchy teacher they all teasingly call “Mr. Turkey.”

Gray also captures wonderfully how being a kid can be terrifying in particular ways. When Paul gets into big trouble Irving can become a monstrous disciplinarian, played by Jeremy Strong with a rough vulnerability that does away with his rich power player in “Succession.” We don’t sense it’s to say he’s a bad person, but shaped by the hardness of working class life. If Johnny gets stopped by the police, he will not get the same treatment as Paul, especially when they get caught stealing a computer. “Fortunately I’ve never experienced what Johnny experiences in the movie,” says Webb, “I did find it a bit challenging to connect with him in that way. So what I did was go around and ask my family members, I asked my family members who were familiar with that era. This was to get a better understanding and connect better with Johnny. That really did help. James told me that the camera always sees through you. That helped a lot with the moments where I’m not talking as much.”

There is no “big lesson” at the end of “Armageddon Time,” only the haze of memory. Paul is given some important tips along the way, like Aaron warning him that racists are useless and that he should stand up for those who are being bullied. But it is one of those special moments we can carry for a lifetime. As they grow older, Paul and Johnny will accumulate more acquaintances, more friends and more moments good and bad. Yet it is those special years right before high school, which can leave a special kind of mark that inspires a filmmaker to make a movie like this one. Unlike other recent autobiographical films by major directors, this one avoids remembering life chapters as if they were tailor-made for a movie. Instead, Gray wants to remember what it was like to feel scared, or the thrill of a new friend who seems to get you, and the loneliness of walking down a cold autumn street, asking yourself what it all means before you can even articulate such a feeling.

Armageddon Time” releases Oct. 28 in select theaters and expands Nov. 4 in theaters nationwide.