James Gray’s turgid coming-of-age drama is well-meaning but self-indulgent
There’s only one true moment of greatness in James Gray’s turgid coming-of-age drama Armageddon Time, and it’s carried off by who else but Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins plays the grandfather of protagonist Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a pre-teen Jewish boy in Queens, New York at the dawn of the Reagan era. Paul has been describing his schoolmates at his new WASP-y private school and the racial slurs they use against Black people. “Fuck them,” Grandpa Rabinowitz says hotly, remembering his mother’s stories about fleeing anti-semitic violence in Ukraine, “If any of those guys say something bad about Black kids, or Hispanic kids — you be a mensch to those kids. Be a mensch.”
It’s a moment of such humanity-affirming indignation, flawlessly performed by our greatest living actor, that it makes all other scenes in the film feel superfluous. What more is there to say in a work about the cyclical nature of hatred and history but “fuck them” and “be a mensch”? Not a whole lot, as it turns out, as Gray’s well-meaning but self-indulgent film limply probes the ways hatred can turn oppressed communities against each other. Gray also uses the semi-autobiographical narrative to exorcize his own guilt as a recipient of white privilege in a racist society. Armageddon Time is yet another work by a white filmmaker who looks at a societal ill and asks, “how can I make this about me?”
Hopkins’ Grandpa Rabinowitz serves as patriarch and moral center to Paul’s social-climbing, middle-class Jewish family. Paul’s grandfather is the only one who doesn’t scoff at his dreams of becoming an artist by suggesting he learn a “real job” he can “fall back on” the way his mother (Anne Hathaway) does. “The art of success is the only art you need to learn,” his father (Jeremy Strong) tells him. It feels like a cruel perspective, but he is also reminded how important college is by a generation of Jews who were blocked from higher education not so long ago.
Paul’s artistic aspirations get him into trouble at his public school, which similarly prioritizes math and history to the point that Paul is deemed “slow” by his teachers because he would rather spend his time drawing than doing homework. He forms a friendship with another “troublemaker” at his school named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), the only Black student in his class whom their priggish teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk) singles out for punishment. Johnny dreams of becoming an astronaut, and the pair bond over his collection of Apollo mission stickers and a mutual appreciation for The Sugarhill Gang. But Johnny also carries a deep well of rage which causes him to lash out whenever he is buttonholed by a white authority figure. The pair get into trouble together, but Paul, whose mother is president of the school board, always seems to get off the hook while Johnny, with no one to speak for him, bears the brunt of the punishment.
The film has a strange relationship with Blackness, as evidenced by the graffiti lettering of its title card (notably different from the rounded, nostalgic typeface of the film’s marketing materials) and use of Willie Williams’ reggae track “Armagideon Time” as a musical bookend. It’s an uncomfortable appropriation of Black art by a film that is definitively not about Blackness, but how a white Jewish person identifies with Blackness through the lens of oppression and privilege.
Johnny is sadly another iteration of the Black character who exists to teach the white protagonist a lesson about racism. We see Paul become aware of his own privilege in contrast to the discrimination against Johnny, which often comes from within Paul’s own community. His older relatives lament the kids from “those other neighborhoods” who are integrated into Paul’s public school, and they push for his entry into an elite private school because “the game is rigged” against Jews and Paul will need every advantage to succeed.
The way discrimination causes communities to prioritize their own at the expense of other oppressed groups is a worthwhile subject to explore, but we only ever see the problem from Paul’s perspective. At times Johnny’s character recedes so far into the background (sometimes literally, as cinematographer Darius Khondji does no favors for Webb’s Black skin) that you forget he’s supposed to be an integral character. We never see where Johnny goes or what he does when Paul’s not around, and therefore never see Paul’s privilege from any perspective but his own.
The effectiveness of any coming-of-age story hinges on its lead child performance, and Repeta is ill-served by Gray’s awkward dialogue and pallid direction. Gray presents Paul as selfish and insufferable, no doubt to show his progression to a more self-aware person as the film goes on, but Repeta’s stilted performance doesn’t allow the character any charm to offset his more irritating traits. By the end it’s not even clear that Paul has grown in the right ways. The film is convinced of the direct connection between wealth and racism (members of the Trump clan make brief appearances), and ultimately seems to conclude that while it’s important to be an ally, it’s even more important to not be a sellout.
We need reminders that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, I just wish we had a conduit for that message less flat and uninspiring than Armageddon Time, and by a director with higher aspirations than merely assuaging his own guilt. There are some good ideas here, and good intentions, but they deserve to be carried off with the same intensity and passion as an old man railing against racist jackasses. Fuck ‘em, be a mensch.
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