Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 3rd, 2022
Armageddon Time (James Gray, 2022) 1 out of 4 stars.
An overweening fable about white privilege and racism, James Gray’s Armageddon Time is filled with good intentions and not much else. It’s a movie that might have seemed daring in the time it takes place (the eve of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election as president)—or perhaps not even then, as its principled naïveté is more rooted in 1960s cinema than anything else—but now seems out of date and clumsy. Yes, we live in dark times where the clock appears to be turning backwards, but on-the-nose filmmaking helps no one.
The major problem is that this is personal, as Gray (Ad Astra) has made clear in interviews. The old adage to “write what you know” is never bad advice, but it can also lead to blind spots. In this case, Gray is so sure that his own story has novel lessons to teach that he forgets to craft a poignant drama around it. That’s not to say that human misery is not, in and of itself, affecting, but as we watch Armageddon Time, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the sorrowful from the trite; these kinds of narratives used to fit neatly into ABC’s long-running “Afterschool Special” television series.
Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta, The Black Phone) is a middle-school student at P.S. 173 in Queens, NY, in 1980. He’s from a Jewish middle-class family and spends a lot of time with his grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins, The Father), who was born in Ukraine but raised in England. His mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway, Ocean’s 8), is president of the PTA, though that doesn’t stop Paul from misbehaving in class. His dad, Irving (Jeremy Strong, HBO’s Succession series), is a plumber, not quite at the social level of Esther’s family but a good earner.
One day, at school, both Paul and another student, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), act out at the same time and are punished together. Johnny is Black and is repeating the grade. The two quickly form a fast friendship, Johnny sharing his interest in NASA and Paul basking in the attention of an older kid. Johnny is also poor, living alone with an old grandmother and in danger of being scooped up by social services any moment. Yes, it’s hard to escape this tired stereotype of African American despair.
After a few too many mishaps, Paul finds himself transferred to the same private school where his older brother goes, immediately surrounded by the children of elite families who drop racist comments with ease. It’s a school that receives large donations from the Trump family (and Fred and daughter Marianne feature prominently at this point), and so functions as a metaphor (albeit an obvious one) for all that will soon go wrong not only for Paul, but for the country (with Reagan’s ascendance just around the corner). Sure enough, Paul and Johnny’s friendship suffers, and things get worse for the latter, though not before the two boys attempt a last scheme that goes horribly awry.
Everyone tries very hard (though most are miscast) to make sure we understand the privilege that comes with skin color—even for Jews, who themselves suffer discrimination—and that this privilege comes at a moral cost. Perhaps if Gray didn’t fill every scene with self-righteous reminders that he knows the price of what he gained while the real-life Johnny lost everything, the message would land with greater impact. As it is, this austere, pious parable falls very flat.