Anthony Hopkins and Anne Hathaway try Their best to Guide Director James Gray’s Young Surrogate into the 1980s


We’re told that James Gray’s latest, the 1980-set coming-of-age tale Armageddon Time, is a “deeply personal” project for the writer/director.  One would have to be thoroughly visually illiterate to not see that.  What is considerably less obvious is the meaning of the title.  

A movie starring kids about kids that actual kids will have no interest in watching, Armageddon Time follows the exploits of affable sixth grade classroom troublemakers Paul Graff (Bank Repeta) and Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb).  Connecting quickly in the face of shared (though racially uneven) consequences for minor in-class disturbances, the Jewish Paul and African American Johnny spend the film in a multi-phased friendship spanning from unguarded hanging out to awkward acknowledgment, and back again.  The trouble that they get into isn’t always “the good trouble”- though Armageddon Time is, in itself, a residual bit of that.

Though they come from intensely divergent ethnic and financial backgrounds, Johnny and Paul bond over their mutual dismissal by adult powers-that-be. These are old-school adults that make a point of condescending to the younger generation, always telling them they’re “tomorrow’s leaders” or whatever horsecrap, all the while completely lording over them.  Such controlling tactics may not be 100% clear to Paul and Johnny, but they’re obvious enough.  When they realize that both of their “impossible dreams” (for Johnny, to soar the stars via NASA; for Paul, to go to a certain school) lead to Florida, they begin to scheme, scam, and steal whatever it takes to get there.  This leads to “bad trouble”.

Paul, being our main character (and directorial surrogate), is ganked through the public educational system until his parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) are forced to decide to put him in a stricter private school.  When that happens, the film abruptly jolts out of the carefully cultivated mind-frame of nostalgic tension and into a more contemporary-tinged confrontation with none other than Mr. Trump.  That’s right- none other than the father of the former United States grifter-in-chief himself.  Fred Trump (John Diehl) and his daughter Maryanne (Jessica Chastain) are prominent in the school’s parental sphere.  The overall vibe of the place isn’t great, but then, the vibe of the overall movie isn’t great.  The tagline on the poster, “The end of an era, the beginning of everything”, invites it.  All of today’s hot-button political issues are percolating right before everyone’s eyes, whether they’re characters the film, or merely watching it.  This is, by the way, essentially James Gray’s true story.  

Paul’s grandfather Aaron, a world-weary Jewish man looking to dispense whatever healthy wisdom he can in the time he’s got left, is played by Anthony Hopkins.  Hopkins being Hopkins is perhaps granted a tad too much prominence in this growing-up tale, but it helps that he is very, very good in the role.  The world is quickly shifting from one of genuine possibilities and idealism to one of fear-driven entitlement, and the old man see it.  He reminds Paul of recent Jewish history, and to respect his heritage.  His influence, though, is not enough to quell his daughter, Paul’s mother’s, anxiety over the school situation (Aaron actually encourages the shift to the elite private school, a rare but historically accurate misstep) or calm the physically abusive hand of Paul’s father.

(L to R) Jeremy Strong as Irving Graff and Anne Hathaway as Esther Graff in director James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Focus Features

Despite whatever doomsday scenarios the film’s title may evoke, Gray carefully maintains a very measured, slice-of-everyday-life tenor.  This, in short, isn’t Wargames.  Although the emerging Reagan era reprisal of nuclear dread is a strong backcurrent, this isn’t a film about averting the apocalypse or getting back launch codes.  For all of us who lived through the moment of late 1980- so lovingly recreated by production designer Happy Massee- Armageddon Time cannot help but stroke a very resonant chord.  This- THIS– not the garish, loud, catch-phrasey, John Hughes-driven pop memory that’s been packaged and sold back to us- is the 1980s.  Or at least, the very early ‘80s.  Perhaps Gray and acclaimed cinematographer Darius Khondji’s decision to color time the whole picture through a veneer of Dijon mustard is a little much, but the point of pending global mortality amid an awakening of very potent social injustices nevertheless hits home.

“Armageddon Time” is a song that eventually worms its way into the film’s finely curated soundtrack.  It was written by Willie Williams in 1977 and covered by The Clash.  It’s the downbeat latter version that features in the film.  Overall, Armageddon Time is a quite fine little movie that is both tremendously resonant but also in danger of being overlooked, forgotten, or dismissed.  Gray is fortunate to be able to be able to make an autobiopic of this sort, in which he gets to confront and acknowledge his own youthful indiscretions and hurtful actions, and also take stock of the era.  It feels very honest, confessional rather than self-aggrandizing, and in its own small way, the evidence of multiple social powder kegs that are being set as forty-year time-bombs right under everyone’s noses.