When I watch a movie by the writer-director James Gray, I often have the sensation that I’m seeing two films in one: the story being told and the one hovering offscreen — the one that’s all about his aspiration to be something larger than a mere storyteller. Early Gray films like “The Yards” (2000) and “We Own the Night” (2007) were modest tales suffused with his desire to be making “a ’70s movie.” “Ad Astra” (2019) was a lavishly scaled outer-space thriller suffused with his desire to be making “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“Armageddon Time,” Gray’s eighth feature, marks a break from most of what he has done before. It’s a more personal project — an autobiographical coming-of-age memoir movie, set in Queens, New York, in 1980 and featuring an 11-year-old hero, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), who navigates the sixth grade and the wider world that starts to feed into it. It’s a skillful, exacting, beguiling movie. But the other Gray movie — in this case, a high-handed progressive instructional one — looms as well.
“Armageddon Time,” which takes its title from a dub reggae cover by the Clash released in 1979 (and from the fact that Ronald Reagan, in a TV interview clip we see, drops a reference to “Armageddon” into his presidential campaign), has a strikingly different tone from Gray’s other work. Set largely among kids, and also in the home of Paul’s scruffy and combative Jewish family, the movie is bustling, personable, anecdotal — and also something that Gray hardly ever is, which is funny. The tone is sometimes reminiscent of the one struck by Barry Levinson in his memory films (“Diner,” “Tin Men,” “Avalon”), with Gray, in this case, trying to present his experience of growing up in as genuine a way as possible, as if he were ripping pages from his diary.
The opening scene, set on the first day of school, is a small marvel of observational staging. The teacher, the addled Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), is trying to establish what a tough-love disciplinarian he is. The reason he feels he needs to do this is that right here, at the dawn of the 1980s, we can already feel the students’ attention wandering. Fifteen years of counterculture, channeled by popular culture, have worn down their respect.
Paul, who dreams of becoming an artist, draws a caricature of Mr. Turkeltaub, which gets passed around to great giggles, and after outing himself as the creator of the sketch Paul has to go up and stand next to the blackboard. So does Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a benign troublemaker who’s repeating the sixth grade, and is the sort of class clown who gets on teachers’ nerves because he knows how to play to the student peanut gallery. These two are pals; over the next few months, they become the class’s token (mild) delinquents. But Paul doesn’t have to endure what Johnny does when Johnny takes his perp walk to the front of the class — namely, Mr. Turkeltaub muttering “animal” at him. It’s a racist slur, and a reference to the fact that the school is in the process of being integrated.
What we once called “race relations” are at the center of “Armageddon Time.” Paul, who thinks he comes from a family that’s “superrich” (actually, they’re just dowdy denizens of the middle class, though his maternal grandparents, who live with the family, have saved the money to help send Paul’s obnoxious older brother to private school), is a kid who drifts through life, getting by on his wits and his talent and his propensity to dream, and not really worrying about anything. Johnny, on the other hand, is a poor kid who lives with his grandmother, and his status as the only Black kid in class makes him an outsider. He and the teacher get into an ongoing psychological war, but Johnny, unlike Paul, doesn’t have the support system that’s going to flick away his mistakes.
Gray stages the scenes set in Paul’s home in a boisterous, everyone-talking-at-the-same-time way, but he’s also cueing us to see the value systems at work — in this case, the crusades and prejudices of outer-borough New York Jewish liberals of the late 20th century. Paul’s grandparents escaped from Europe before the Holocaust but live every day with the awareness of it, as do his folks: his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), a high-strung PTA president who’s planning to run for school board, and his father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), a mole-like home repairman who seems like a decent and even corny guy until his famous “temper” bursts out. (When it does, you think: This man has a problem.)
The actors inhabit these roles — Hathaway makes Esther at once affectionate and blinkered, and Strong is meticulous in how he plays the father as a charmless noodge with those pockets of rage, yet if you look hard enough you can see his love there too. Anthony Hopkins, as Paul’s grandfather, brings the film a note of crusty benevolence, though I couldn’t watch his performance without thinking: Why does an actor as great as Hopkins play this aging mensch with the same Welsh purr you’d expect to hear from him on a talk show?
Paul, in his way, is an entitled kid — too entitled, to the extent he feels like he can just pick up the phone and order Chinese dumplings because he doesn’t like what’s being served for dinner that night. But entitlement, as we see, runs in this family. The Grafs pride themselves on being good liberals — they think Ronald Reagan’s candidacy is a horror show — and much of that comes from what they view as their legacy of being Jewish victims of oppression. Yet they’re still the sort of people who think of Black Americans as “the Blacks.” They’re as racist, in their way, as Mr. Turkeltaub. They just don’t know it. We’ve seen plenty of movie scenes, over the years, with noisy ethnic families, but the disorder of this household reflects something — maybe the culture at large starting to come apart.
“Armageddon Time” is an effusive 1980 nostalgia trip. On a class outing to the Guggenheim Museum, Paul sees the Kandinsky canvases hanging there in their psychedelic eye-candy slashes and color bursts, which inspires his art inclinations all the more. Then he and Johnny duck out of the field trip, which allows Gray to give us a tour of 40-year-old analog New York: the subway trains splattered in graffiti, the pinball arcades, the joys of going to Colony Records to buy “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. Banks Repeta, who looks like a dewy freckled young Miles Teller, has a gentle wariness the audience hooks right into. His Paul takes in everything but holds most of it inside, a quality that will take him far. Yet his parents fear that he’s failing. (It doesn’t occur to his practical, imagination-impaired father that wanting to be a visual artist isn’t career suicide.) And after Paul is caught smoking a joint with Johnny in the school bathroom, they announce that he’s going to be joining his older brother at private school.
His first day in the gothic hallways, a man in a wormy mustache stands in the corridor and asks Paul his name. Is this the assistant principal? Actually, it’s Fred Trump (played by the redoubtable John Diehl) — yes, Donald Trump’s father, who susses out that Paul, despite his generic last name, is Jewish. We may think the stage is being set for a junior version of “School Ties,” especially when Paul, in his clip-on tie and insignia jacket, is approached by Topper (played with a scene-stealing smirk by Dane West), a kid who looks like he’s biding his time before he joins a fraternity. But Gray mostly uses the brief scenes at the private school to establish his larger theme: that there are two Americas in place, and that Paul has suddenly been thrust into the elite one. (Fred Trump is a school benefactor.) Whatever he himself believes or thinks he stands for, he’s now part of the corrupt system.
There are ways that things have gotten better since 1980. Yet Gray uses the dawn of the Reagan era (and, in a way, the Trump era) to try and paint a portrait of systemic oppression, with an awareness that hooks into that of our own time. But here’s the trouble with that.
At heart, “Armageddon Time” is an old-school liberal message movie — it’s all about how Paul and Johnny get into trouble, but Johnny is the one who gets thrown under the bus, and we’re supposed to feel bad about that. Yet as a filmmaker, Gray wants to have his compassion and eat it too. Given the fair amount of screen time that Johnny gets, there’s something a little cavalier about how the story just kind of tosses him away. He’s there, in effect, to provide a lesson for Paul — to make him a better person. The story doesn’t so much care about Johnny as use him. Throughout the film, we hear snatches of the title song, which I always found to be a monotonous and preachy latter-day Clash anthem, with Joe Strummer singing about how “A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight.” It sounded au courant back then, but now it sounds like a song driven by a white-savior consciousness, and so, in its way, is “Armageddon Time.” The movie ends with a rebel gesture that feels too much like…a gesture. It’s the perfect sign-off for a drama that cares, but maybe not enough to see that this kind of caring actually became part of the problem.