'Ad Astra' director James Gray looks back at his 80s childhood in this poignant coming-of-age tale, aided by impressive turns from Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong.
November 03, 2022
What's more difficult a feat: to ponder everything that the universe might hold, as writer/director James Gray did in 2019's sublime Ad Astra, or to peer back at your own childhood, as he now does with Armageddon Time? Both films focus on their own worlds, just of different sizes and scales. Both feature realms that loom over everyone, but we all experience in their own ways. In the two movies, the bonds and echoes between parents and children also earn the filmmaker's attention. Soaring into the sky and reaching beyond your assigned patch is a focus in one fashion or another, too. In both cases, thoughtful, complex and affecting movies result. And, as shared with everything he's made over the past three decades — such as The Yards, The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z as well — fantastic performances glide across the screen in unwaveringly emotionally honest pictures.
In Armageddon Time, Gray returns to a favourite subject: the experience of immigrants to New York. With a surname barely removed from his own, the Graff family share his own Jewish American heritage — and anchor a portrait of a pre-teen's growing awareness of his privilege, the world's prejudices, the devastating history of his ancestors, and how tentative a place people can hold due to race, religion, money, politics and more. The year is 1980, and the end of times isn't genuinely upon anyone. Even the sixth-grader at its centre knows that. Still, that doesn't stop former Californian governor-turned-US presidential candidate Ronald Reagan from talking up existential threats using inflammatory language, as the Graffs spot on TV. Armageddon Time also takes its moniker from a 1977 The Clash B-side and cover; despite the film's stately approach, the punk feeling of wanting to tear apart the status quo — Gray's own adolescent status quo — dwells in its frames.
Banks Repeta (The Black Phone) plays Paul Graff, Gray's on-screen surrogate, and Armageddon Time's curious and confident protagonist. At his public school in Queens, he's happy standing out alongside his new friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb, The Wonder Years), and disrupting class however and whenever he can — much to the dismay of his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway, Locked Down), a home economics teacher and school board member. He dreams of being an artist, despite his plumber dad Irving's (Jeremy Strong, Succession) stern disapproval, because the elder Graff would prefer the boy use computing as a path to a life better than his own. In his spare time, Paul is happiest with his doting, advice-dispensing, gift-bearing grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins, The Father), who's considered the only person on the pre-teen's wavelength.
Gray fleshes out Paul's personality and the Graffs' dynamic with candour as well as affection, as seen at an early home dinner. There, Paul criticises Esther's cooking, orders dumplings even after expressly being forbidden and incites Irving's explosive anger — and the establishing scene also starts laying bare attitudes that keep being probed and unpacked throughout Armageddon Time. Indeed, Paul will begin to glean the place he navigates in the world. Even while hearing about the past atrocities that brought his grandfather's mother to America, and the discrimination that still lingers, he'll learn that he's fortunate to hail from a middle-class Jewish family. Even if his own comfort is tenuous, Paul will see how different his life is to his black, bused-in friend, with Johnny living with his ailing grandmother, always skirting social services and constantly having condemning fingers waggling his way. And, Paul will keep spying how Johnny is at a disadvantage in every manner possible, including from their instantly scornful teacher and via Paul's own parents' quick judgement.
Filmmakers diving into their own histories is one of the prevailing flavours of recent few years, including Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza and Kenneth Branagh's Belfast — all Oscar-nominees, with Roma and Belfast also Oscar-winners. Don't call the trend navel-gazing, though. As much as these movies, and now Armageddon Time as well, are products of personal experience, all four films are also time capsules steeped in specific places and confronting corresponding realities. In Gray's addition to the fold, he doesn't like, love or appreciate everything that he surveys, with the director delving into happy and sorrowful slices of the past with wide-open eyes. There's another movie to be made that hones in on Johnny instead, but Armageddon Time knows what its audience does, and what Paul doesn't see as clearly but Gray can thanks to the passage of time: that small moments leave an imprint, small deeds left undone cause craters, and everyday aggressions and acts of oppression allowed to run rampant make the world shatter.
That soul-searching hindsight explains Armageddon Time's overall neatness; when someone reflects upon what's come before and what it really meant, it's easy to spot intricacy and complexity that went unnoticed at the time, and to also simultaneously view the bigger picture. Still, while the film's conclusions might be blatant, this is a layered and subtle feature, as any coming-of-age contemplation set against a fraught social and political backdrop must be. With cinematographer Darius Khondji behind the lens as he was on Gray's The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z — and adding a different vision of New York to his resume compared to the frenetic Uncut Gems — Armageddon Time brings that texture to its visuals, which always have the look and feel of a memory. Painting in shades of brown is a straightforward, instantly evocative and significant choice; nothing in this powerful feature is ever rose-tinted.
There's nothing simple about Armageddon Time's performances, either. In fact, Repeta and Webb manage something remarkable, more than holding their own against the reliably excellent Hopkins, Hathaway and Strong. The young pair's camaraderie shines, whether Paul and Johnny are getting sent to detention, bonding over space and Sugarhill Gang's 'Rapper's Delight', skiving off from a school excursion or smoking the joint that'll get Paul moved to his older brother's snobbish private school — where racism and classism is overt among the offspring of rich Republicans, and where then-Assistant United States Attorney Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain, The Good Nurse), Donald Trump's sister, addresses assembly. In Hathaway and Strong's work, complications and contradictions abound, with the former getting the thinner-written role and the latter the best redemptive moment, but the two combining to offer a snapshot of being seemingly progressive in a country engrained with intolerance. As for Hopkins, he's so naturalistic and effortless that even the harshest truths feel digestible in his presence. Armageddon Time is largely that sensation in filmic form, too — tenderly, poignantly and unflinchingly.