James Gray has it both ways with “Armageddon Time.”
The drama, based on his childhood days in New York City, shows some restraint in its liberal politics. Yet the fact that the writer/director name checks two GOP figures – Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump – tips his hand.
Gray’s political asides hardly sink the film, a heartfelt memoir with some vibrant scenes. It still suggests an auteur leading with his ideological heart and missing themes that would make this drama worthy of Oscar attention.
Michael Banks Repeta is solid as Paul Graff, a sixth grader in a New York City middle school circa 1980. Paul’s well-meaning Jewish parents (Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong) want the best for their youngest son, but Paul would rather dream of becoming an artist than bury himself in schoolwork.
Paul’s free spirit connects with a fellow student and co-conspirator. Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a black child living with his grandmother, bonds with Paul over their shared passions for NASA and tomfoolery.
Johnny may lack role models at home, but Paul’s house has his grandfather, played with specificity and sparkle by Anthony Hopkins. Grandpa faced anti-Semitism in his younger years, and he’s quick to give life lessons to Paul on any number of subjects.
The story meanders from there, pinging from one heartfelt sequence to another, soggier one. The Paul-Johnny friendship powers the drama, but it’s not as engaging as Gray may think. And nothing else emerges to take its place.
The writer/director has bigger themes in mind, from white privilege to the horrors of “hard work.” He’s clearing out some emotional baggage via “Time,” from trashing his old private school to mocking his parents’ casual bigotry.
Paul’s father refers to a local Chinese restaurant with a racially insensitive name. He also fears that a strange black person may be lurking around their property.
Gray set the film in a school run by members of the Trump family (part of his background). That detail shouldn’t matter given the story in play. It does, though, with the filmmaker adding several meaningless moments to drop the Trump brand.
There’s a syndrome describing this, an obsession over a blustery politician …
View this post on Instagram
Someone should have tapped Gray on the shoulder and asked him to remove a needless cameo by Jessica Chastain. She plays Maryanne Trump for a monologue that adds little to the story save a distraction.
Why is the Oscar winner here? What does the cameo mean beyond a wink-wink TDS moment?
Gray nails the period details down to the Entenmann pastry box on the family’s dinner table. The Graff gatherings are equally astute, with the conversational rhythms vibrant and real.
Like too many films today, “Armageddon Time” has 2022 firmly in mind. One sequence finds Grandpa lecturing Paul about ways to deal with his racist school mates.
The moment doesn’t jibe with Grandpa’s previous tone and temperament. It’s like he took a time machine to the 21st century and read “Anti-Racist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi before spouting his wisdom to Paul.
The tell? Paul shares how the boys use the N-word, but grandpa cautions the lad about discriminating against blacks or Hispanics.
This line from “Armageddon Time”.
“Never, ever forget the past, because you may never know when they’ll come looking for you.” pic.twitter.com/nP9HH2XHLI
— JBone – #VoteYes (@BoneJeni) November 3, 2022
A third-act scheme involving the lads doesn’t add up on several fronts, but Gray needs it to send his final message home. And, later, President Reagan returns just in case you didn’t connect the dots Gray has in mind.
The film wants us to believe racism is holding young Johnny back. The truth? He doesn’t have a mother or father. His grandmother, doing the best she can, is elderly and lacks the skills to raise a headstrong young child.
And are we to believe public school children don’t reflect the racist attitudes of the era like their private school peers?
The family inconsistencies bog the tale down, too. Paul’s father is keen on corporal punishment, yet he and his older brother (a 24/7 bully) act up around the dinner table as if they don’t fear a spanking.
The film posits hard work, success and achievement as some sort of sin. Elsewhere, Paul’s parents plead with him to study harder.
The messaging is muddled.
And what privilege does this family possess? The father is a plumber. The lad’s grades are sub-par and he may need remedial lessons. He barely gets into a private school thanks to his generous grandpa.
Is he really starting life on third base?
“Armageddon Time” needs something more substantial as its through line, a richer subtext beyond the writer/director’s grievances. As is, it’s a solid drama with some fine performances and, alas, a wobbly ax to grind.
HiT or Miss: “Armageddon Time” is a deeply personal, and occasionally powerful, look back at a specific time and place. You’ll have to peel back the director’s politics to fully enjoy it, though.