Can It Be That It Was All So Simple?
This article appeared in the October 27, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Armageddon Time (James Gray, 2022)
In James Gray’s films, autobiographical memory is frequently refracted, transfigured, and mined for its subterranean currents of desire and moral conflict. The resultant material is then, through the magic of real-deal, big-screen, old-school American moviemaking, alchemized into a latter-day form of tragedy structured around the impossibility of ever truly being able to go home again. But if the tragic internal logic of the family unit precludes the return to an idealized image of home, the hope of eventually making contact with a redemptive “outside” (as with the rumored golden city in Gray’s The Lost City of Z) lingers tantalizingly on the horizon in these movies.
Gray’s latest, Armageddon Time, is perhaps the most directly autobiographical of his films, as the director has noted in recent interviews. Set around Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, Queens, in the early 1980s, the film finds Gray taking a stab at realizing his very own Jewish Antoine Doinel in the guise of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a middle schooler with a gift for drawing and an inclination toward shit-stirring. He forges an easy friendship with a Black classmate named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), whose persecution by their white teacher effectively takes the heat off Paul for his own comparably “bad” behavior. Paul and Johnny sneak off during a class trip to the Guggenheim, ride the subway sans adult supervision, and make wishful plans to attend an upcoming Sugarhill Gang concert; together, they manage a connection to the world beyond the home, beyond the neighborhood, beyond the oppressive sameness of the everyday.
The joy of their lite mischief and increasing closeness forms a strong counterpoint to Paul’s home life. His father, Irving (Jeremy Strong, by turns terrifying and noble, though mostly ridiculous), disciplines him violently when he and Johnny are caught smoking weed, a crime that Irving construes as a gesture of willful self-sabotage—an attempt to hop off the hamster wheel of capitalist striving before Paul has ever truly stepped on (ironic, given Paul’s fallacious boasting to Johnny about his family’s considerable wealth). His mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway, pretty low-key, all things considered), worries about the health of her father, the stately and encouraging Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), while wringing her hands about Paul’s role in her family’s prospects for social advancement.
Aaron’s gentle, paternal presence serves to embody how the Graffs got to be the Graffs in the first place: as a Ukrainian Jew whose family fled to England before shipping out for Ellis Island, his diasporic backstory both establishes the Graffs as the descendants of relatively recent immigrants and gives them the aura of perennial exiles striving to overcome the anti-Semitism surrounding them and just fit in. But Johnny’s entrance into Paul’s life also marks an early brush with overt racism for Paul, who witnesses time and again that his friend is treated differently than he is. Gray centers this relationship for much of the film, clearly regarding it (and Paul’s realization of the American fact of anti-Blackness) as one of Armageddon Time’s core through lines. The film, however, labors less to evoke Johnny’s experience than Paul’s perception of it and its value within his own psychological and moral development.
Gray’s previous period films The Immigrant (2013) and The Lost City of Z (2016) plumbed history for new contexts in which to stage tragedies about the family structure’s combustibility amid the psychic turbulence of capitalist business as usual. While chronologically closer to our own stupid age, Armageddon Time’s portrait of the artist as a young man is framed by the dawn of the Reagan era and the ascendance of the American right wing. Paul’s family vocally laments Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory, but, post–pot bust, ships him off to the private shirt-and-tie Kew-Forest School. There, he immediately bumps into one of its top benefactors, none other than Donald Trump’s father, Fred (John Diehl), whose demonic presence seems at odds with the Graffs’ Carter-era liberalism. (The Donald’s elder sister, Maryanne, portrayed here by a game-enough Jessica Chastain, stops by a school assembly to deliver an appropriately substance-free sermon on the importance of obtaining personal success by any means necessary.) While the Trumps’ appearance in the film might smack of semi-digested, post–2016 U.S. Presidential Election brain-brokenness, it’s actually based in fact: indeed, it’s a fascinating coincidence that while growing up, Gray crossed paths with the ne plus ultra Oedipal-American family of the past decade, whose own “Shakespeare by way of the Farrelly brothers” palace intrigues dominated America’s collective imaginary in the back half of the 2010s.
There’s a certain degree of aesthetic anal-compulsiveness to Armageddon Time—the meticulousness of framings and camera movements; the painterly, gloomily lit, period-perfect apartments, painstakingly reconstructed from Gray’s childhood photos; the top-shelf performances by the eminently recognizable cast, as well as newcomers Repeta and Webb—that, in the context of an NYC coming-of-age moral tale, feels uncannily fussy, turning a grimey and endlessly complex urban environment into an overly polished replica. (Nostalgia is a powerful thing!) But, perhaps by design, this artificiality does little to smooth over the film’s heavy, racially fraught climax, in which Johnny once again takes a fall for Paul, this time with far more on the line than a stint in after-school detention.
Gray unfurls this confessional stretch of the narrative too hastily, but nevertheless foregrounds the stark differences between Paul’s and Johnny’s experiences of the world. The implication that Johnny would make such an immense sacrifice to pave the way for an easier life for Paul—who will almost certainly have an easier life regardless—produces a righteously icky feeling. Suddenly, and quite late in the film, its central moral question is posed: is Paul right to accept the terms of Johnny’s gesture, well aware of what the consequences will be for him, relative to what they’d be if the shoe were on the other foot? What follows only vaguely, briefly gestures toward the ramifications of that question. It’s too little, too late, but maybe that’s the point: a more conventional resolution to this quandary within an otherwise layered cine-memoir about exiting the familial cocoon and entering the cold world likely would’ve felt insincere. Spiritually exiled from home and hurtling toward the end of history, our “hero” (or perhaps our Paul Dedalus) ultimately finds escape through his ambition to become an artist. Armageddon Time shows, somewhat clumsily, that this dream of an acceptable “outside” is a luxury exclusively available to him and others like him. He should feel guilty!
Dan Sullivan is a programmer for Film at Lincoln Center and is based in New York City.