Armageddon Time - James Gray - Focus Features
Credit: Focus Features
by Joshua Bogatin Featured Film Spotlight

Armageddon Time — James Gray

November 7, 2022

Armageddon Time is far from Gray’s best and can occasionally risk eye-roll liberal apologia, but the director is ultimately too smart a filmmaker to fully fall prey to the film’s messier moments.

Post-Holocaust Jewish American identity is nothing short of conflicted: with the wounds of persecution still raw and antisemitism a stubbornly persistent problem, Jews have stuck fast to a sense of minority identity on one hand — only aided by their status as venerated survivors of modernity’s biggest sin — while also steadily moving toward a newly-gained assimilation with the white christian upper and middle classes. This contradictory push-pull of modern Jewish identity — simultaneously toward holding onto ethnic specificity and away from the old-world marginalism through assimilation — lies at the heart of James Gray’s autobiographical coming-of-age story Armageddon Time, which views the moral stakes of class privilege with existential anxiety.

The story of an 11-year-old Jewish-American, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), given his first true tastes of racism and classism, Armageddon Time is a film fundamentally concerned with the ways in which individual identity is forged in one’s social environment. Set in Queens during the months leading up to the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, it’s also the story of a nation reorienting its own ideas of self-identity and individualism for the neoliberal era.

When we first see Paul, it’s his first day of sixth grade at a local public school where his penchant for attention soon lands him in trouble with the teacher and in fast friendship with the classroom’s other deviant and sole black student, Johnny (Jaylin Webb). As their friendship grows over playing hooky in Central Park and fantasizing about space travel, so do the markers of race and class differences between them. Middle class Paul is so comfortable in his suburban, nuclear-family domesticity that he mistakenly thinks his parents are secretly wealthy and all-powerful at school — his mom (Anne Hathaway) is president of the PTA — while Johnny lives with his invalid grandmother, can’t afford to go on school trips, and is never far from being institutionalized. These unstated tensions become explicit when they’re caught smoking weed together in the school bathroom — the school gives Paul a slap on the wrist while Johnny takes the brunt of the blame and ends up on the lam from child services.

Following this incident, Paul is forced by his family to enroll in a strict private school — “The game is rigged and I want to take care of you,” Paul’s grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) tells Paul as explanation — and overnight his whole world shifts as the messy chaos of an overstuffed public school classroom is traded for the stuffy, suit-and-tie formalism of the private school’s rampant class condescension. Emblematized by two Trump family cameos that risk kitsch, but deliver perspective, what is mainly learned at this school is the dogma of self-reliance. As Maryannne Trump (Jessica Chastain) states in a steely assembly speech, the less fortunate are simply less capable, and it’s the responsibility of those in attendance to lead this country through financially. Suffice to say, Paul’s friendship with Johnny not only becomes distant, but untenable.

The strongest rebuke Gray manufactures in response to this neoliberal philosophy comes through Paul’s family. From his snappy and domineering mother to his reserved yet tempestuous father (Jeremy Strong), Paul’s family not only offers the nurturing support vital to Paul’s development, but also pulls all sorts of small favors with principals and police officers to keep him out of trouble. Perhaps no one is as fundamental to Paul’s well-being, however, as his grandfather, who has an almost angelic, even God-like presence in Paul’s life, feeding him jelly beans and sage wisdom in equal measure. A Holocaust survivor, Paul’s grandfather also makes explicit the complexity of racial and ethnic ties in an America on the cusp of neoliberalism. Prone to speechifying, the grandfather, at various times, lectures Paul not only on the horrors of the Holocaust and the importance of standing up for minorities, but also on the necessity of assimilation and doing whatever it takes to get ahead.

There may be eye-roll notes of liberal apologia in Gray’s treatment of how the discovery of his own privilege also became the beginning of disillusionment, but he’s also too smart a filmmaker to wallow in pity or simple political messaging. Gray resists settling on any proper moral position for Paul to take in the face of a world full of injustice, choosing instead to make a general skepticism toward American society the ultimate landing point of his film. Armageddon is the ultimate struggle for good and evil, after all. It’s a struggle just beginning for Paul, and it’s a struggle that’s been going on in America for centuries; it likely always will be.