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‘Armageddon Time’: Tough Truth in Tender, Funny Film

James Gray's movie doesn't pull punches, but is constantly enjoyable

(L to R) Anthony Hopkins stars as Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz and Michael Banks Repeta stars as Paul Graff in director James Gray's ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Anne Joyce / Focus Features
Anne Joyce / Focus Features

James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” is a personal look at his upbringing in Flushing, N.Y., around 1980. Awards voters might assume it’s an affectionate remembrance about growing up. They would be wrong.

“I never saw this as a coming-of-age story,” he tells Variety. “I saw it as a moment in time of people trapped within a system.” Aside from the personal story, the movie is a subtle study of how American economy and politics changed. And Gray offers some insights rarely portrayed in films.

If this sounds like heavy going, filmmaker Gray — no relation, BTW — made sure it’s entertaining: “It’s not medicine. It’s not lecturing you. I wanted the film to be tender and funny.”

The Oscar contender centers on Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), his friendship with Black classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb), and his relationship with his parents (Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong) and grandfather (Anthony Hopkins).

It was always intended to be both personal and socio-political: “The ideas were conjoined: It was a memoir but it had to have a larger implication. It couldn’t be just navel-gazing.”

Gray incorporates two of the GOP’s icons: Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.

Paul is sent to a prestigious college-prep school, where the students lovingly chant “Reagan” at a gathering. But on election night, Paul’s father watches Reagan’s victory and mutters “Morons, from sea to shining sea.”

Gray went to Kew-Forest in Forest Hills, where he encountered the Trump family. As the movie shows, Fred C. Trump (Donald’s father) was on the board and personifies the academy’s attitudes. Donald’s sister Maryanne was a guest lecturer, describing herself as a self-made success. “She talked about how difficult her struggle was,” Gray recalls. 

“I have long thought that 1980 is a big deal. Maybe not to historians yet,” he says. 

He cites such changes as the government defining ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches, and Reagan’s firing of air-traffic controllers, with the message that unions don’t matter. “That was the beginning of the end of thinking that middle-class workers were of value in this country. The ’60s and ’60s optimism were finally killed off.”

Gray also doles out tough truths.

The film clearly establishes that Paul’s Jewish family has suffered from prejudice, yet they casually disparage other minorities. Johnny, who receives second-class treatment at school, makes a derogatory remark about the disabled. It’s something you haven’t seen in films, where the oppressed are usually too noble to look down on other oppressed groups.

“There is a strange solace we get from that pecking order,” he says.

Paul’s family readily talk about their sufferings but don’t want to acknowledge that they enjoy white privilege which is not afforded to everyone in the U.S.

In person, Gray warms to the subject of economic imbalance, whipping out his phone to show a fever-chart representing the growth of American gross domestic product since 1950. 

Pointing to the chart, he says, “Growth is modest through the ’70s, but look at 1983.” It begins a soaring climb that lasts through the present. “Yet middle-class income was stagnating,” he says. 

“Where is all that money going? It’s going to point-zero-zero-zero-zero one percent of the population. Is all this the fault of Reagan? No, but his tax policies certainly encouraged it.” 

He adds, “Public policy has never favored the poor.” Though Americans like to think of themselves as a classless society, “Class is a huge dividing line in our identity.”

Like the film, he makes a connection between the 1980 changes and modern times. “There is such anger now, in the body politic and the country at large. You wonder how much is fueled by all this unconscious awareness of working harder and harder and not getting ahead, so you get this anger and frustration in the country.”