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Review: Armageddon Time

November 4, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

James Gray’s Armageddon Time finds the writer-director digging into his own childhood experiences to craft a mostly engaging coming of age story set during the Reagan-era.

The year is 1980, and Paul Graff (Banks Repeta, playing the film’s stand-in for a young Gray) is an 11-year-old Jewish boy growing up in Queen’s, New York with his school board member mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) and handyman father Irving (Jeremy Strong), who has anger issues and very much believes in “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Much of the story revolves around Paul’s experience going to public school, where his best friend is Johnny (Jaylin Webb), the one Black kid in his class who has been held back a year. They bond over getting in trouble in class, with Johnny taking most of the heat from their belittling teacher (Andrew Polk), even if Paul is to blame.

With his family worried about the “influence” that Johnny is having on him, Paul faces the threat of being sent to Kew-Forrest, the same private school in Forrest Hills as his older brother Ted (Ryan Sell), where the Trump kids also went. The film is primarily the story of two friends, with one coming to the realization that the outcomes between them will not be equal. Yes, this is Gray dealing with racism in America. If his approach to the subject threatens to feel overly simplistic at times, with Johnny being somewhat frustratingly underdeveloped as a character (it has been accused of being primarily a “white guilt” movie), it’s also presented from the vantage point of his young protagonist.

The film takes place around the 1980 presidential election of Ronald Reagan, and it’s obvious what Gray is trying to do in terms of drawing political parallels between then and now. Fred Trump (played by John Diehl) makes a cameo appearance at the private school assembly with his daughter Maryanne (Jessica Chastain in a one-scene role), a US Attorney at the time and sister to future president Donald. The film is not exactly subtle, but it is mostly effective in its earnest sort of way.

The heart of the film comes from Paul’s close bond is with his grandfather Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), the sort of grandpa who doles out kind advice while also reminding him of the importance of standing up against prejudice and racism. Hopkins is absolutely wonderful in the role, with his impact being felt in the film even when he is not onscreen. Hathaway does fine work as Paul’s loving but firm mother, while Strong embodies his character’s more hardened tough love approach (Gray’s last movie Ad Astra was about the complicated relationship between a grown man and his father, and the scenes with Strong’s character shed some possible light on the director’s own upbringing).

If Gray’s approach at times feels heavy-handed, it’s balanced out by a poignancy that keeps Armageddon Time from just being a work of self-indulgent nostalgia. Gray’s semi-autobiographical film will inevitably draw comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, also arriving in theatres this month. Between the two, I personally think that The Fabelmans is the superior film, but Armageddon Time has enough of its own merits to warrant a recommendation. A few shortcomings aside, this is a textured portrait of growing up in New York in the 1980s, that tells an often involving small-scale story with an evocative quality to it in the way that it captures the time period.

Armageddon Time is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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