The American Dream is an elusive one. Throughout history, many have sought it out, though as much as anything, many have sought it out for their children. That focus, as well as what shapes a young person, for better and worse, is the subject of Armageddon Time, the latest movie from auteur James Gray. Playing at the Telluride Film Festival, after a positive reception earlier on this year at the Cannes Film Festival, the flick definitely played better in the box canyon of Telluride. For my money, this is one of Gray’s stronger films, with an added emotional quotient that helps to separate his best works. Count this amount them, to be sure.
Armageddon Time sees Gray looking inward. Clearly an autobiographical work, it’s also his most emotional movie. The filmmaker has a lot on his mind, but keeps a strong focus at the same time. For a film that intertwines antisemitism, racism, class status, when your view of the world begins to shift in youth, and even features the Trump family, there’s never a sense that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. If anything, it’s just more material that his excellent cast can sink their teeth into.
Taking place in Queens during the 1980s and the rise of Ronald Reagan, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a sixth grader at PS 173. An aspiring artist, he quickly enrages his stick in the mud teacher on the first day, becoming an outcast, alongside Johnny (Jaylin Webb), the only African-American student in the class. They quickly become friends, much to the consternation of their teacher. At home, Paul fights with his older brother and is a pain to his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), the PTA President with mild political aspirations, and his gruff plumber father Irving (Jeremy Strong). His only true bond is with his kindly grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), who encourages him and actually can reach the boy when need be. When Paul and Johnny are caught smoking in the bathroom, Esther forbids them from seeing each other, which has wide reaching consequences. Johnny has a tough home life and this leads him to drop out, while the Graff family decides that Paul needs to be sent to the Forrest Hills Academy.
Placed in the private school, Paul encounters overt racism and privilege, couched in coded language. The school’s benefactor Fred Trump (John Diehl) roams the halls, while Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) gives an ironic speech on not having everything handed to you. Through it all, Esther and Irving hope for better for Paul, Aaron pleads with him to be a mensch, and Johnny falls through the cracks. In America, Johnny and Paul may be similar kids, but their futures are anything but.
This cast is in peak form, from top to bottom. Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins, and Jeremy Strong are especially excellent, giving their characters cultural specificity but also universal relatability. Hathaway mixes her caring mother qualities with a wealth of sadness, especially during key events in the second half. Hopkins is perhaps best in show, making Grandpa Aaron a patriarchal figure many of us had in our lives. A scene between Aaron and Paul at the park is filled with deep meaning. Hopkins quietly breaks your heart. Strong goes the biggest here, but it’s in service of a fascinating man, a plumber who wishes for more but will sacrifice for his son. When Paul gets in trouble, Irving explains why he needs to make the most of his breaks, even as he knows he’s telling his son to do the opposite of the advice his grandfather has given him. Everyone wants the American Dream for the boy, but they all approach that desire and love in different ways. As for Banks Repeta, he’s good, but the occasionally grating nature of the character limits how much you can embrace him, at least a little bit. Jaylin Webb hints at more than he’s given to do, but is still a solid young presence. Supporting players aside from the Jessica Chastain cameo and the likes of John Diehl include Tovah Feldshuh, Domenick Lombardozzi, Andrew Polk, Ryan Sell, and more, though Hathaway, Hopkins, and Strong are the biggest standouts.
Filmmaker James Gray is at the top of his game with Armageddon Time. Between the perceptive script, tight direction (buoyed by Darius Khondji‘s terrific cinematography), and a real sense of time and place, he’s at the height of his powers. Plus, Gray deserves a very specific kudos for featuring a bagels and lox meal during a pivotal scene. The specificity he displays here is truly something to soak in.
Armageddon Time should thrill anyone looking for an affecting coming of age story. James Gray’s emotional film about the cost of the American Dream was definitely one of the more widely liked movies at Telluride, with ample evidence that Oscar voters could go for this one. Anyone who has enjoyed a Gray movie before will find the same here, but it also could win over some new converts. It’s a quiet work, but one with a ton to say.
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