Nearly a decade ago, James Gray deconstructed the myth of the American dream presented by Lady Liberty as immigrants arrived at Ellis Island. Gray’s new film Armageddon Time makes a fine companion to its predecessor The Immigrant. Gray again looks deep within the soul of America, the supposed land of opportunity. What he sees in this potent trip to Reagan-era USA, like his glimpse into 1920’s New York in The Immigrant, is not pretty. It’s authentic, though, and it’s honest. America: it is what it is.
Gray presents another drama from the heart of the Big Apple with Armageddon Time, but with a personal twist. It’s loosely inspired by his upbringing in Queen’s during a decade in which America lost its soul and widened the leap that children of immigrants had to make in pursuing the dream their parents and grandparents hoped would one day be realized.
In a year replete with semi-autobiographical works (see: The Fabelmans, Empire of Light, Aftersun, I Like Movies), it’s refreshing that Gray’s surrogate Paul Graff (strong newcomer Banks Repeta) doesn’t pick up a movie camera. Instead, his parents Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong) don’t support his artistic inclinations. Whenever their boy finds his head in the clouds, they pull him back down. Paul grows up in a home where a 9-to-5 job that pays the bills is all that’s expected of him. His parents aren’t really dreamers.
Lessons in Privilege
On the other hand, perhaps they are. Paul’s grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) frequently regales him with stories of his family’s escape from Europe. As he raised Esther, the chance to grow a family that could prosper was the dream itself. Paul doesn’t quite grasp that privilege, but he soon gets a proper lesson.
Cut to Paul’s classroom where his oafishly inept teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk) has a habit of picking on students. The Turkey mainly singles out Paul, along with his classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb). Sure, they’re rambunctious, but one can guess why Turkeltaub deems the Jew and the lone Black kid the bad apples. Paul and Johnny quickly become allies, though, as they playfully face their teacher’s ire. They have each other’s backs and a strong friendship develops. Johnny nurtures Paul’s interest in art, while Paul encourages Johnny’s dream of becoming an astronaut. Repeta and Polk have a natural rapport, too, which lends Armageddon Time a sense of innocence to shatter.
The Trump Card
Moreover, a brief lapse in judgment cruelly drives them apart. As Esther advises Paul to stay away from Johnny, and Irving insists his son transfer to a private school, Paul recognizes that he and Johnny live worlds apart.
When Paul and Johnny take different paths, Paul sees the bum hand that life deals some people to benefit others. At Paul’s posh private school, he faces anti-Semitism that is even more flagrant. Moreover, the kids tease him for befriending a Black kid. “You had them at your house?” a student gasps.
Cut to a school assembly where Maryann Trump, played by Jessica Chastain in one of those powerhouse cameos that take a film to another level, outlines the rules of the game. The future judge preaches to the boys about hard work. “No handouts,” she sternly advises. This is, of course, rich coming from a product of one of New York’s most privileged dynasties. (Although Maryann doubtlessly worked much harder than her brother Donald did.) Something in Ms. Trump’s words touches Paul. He’s not entirely buying what she’s selling as he recognizes that he and Johnny aren’t on the same playing field.
Gray finds himself in his element here as he strips back the fallacies that form the bedrock of America. After the grand canvasses of The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, he’s back in the dark gallows of New York. Armageddon Time hails from the stomping grounds of The Yards and Two Lovers. Gray lays himself bare by digging into the grit and sifting through his family’s faith in America’s melting pot. Paul, meanwhile, sees that it’s simply not true that everyone can make it in America. From the struggles Esther faces in her political ambitions to the bullying that Johnny endures, Paul observes unfairness everywhere. As news of Ronald Reagan’s impending victory filters through the television, life looks to be getting even less fair.
Armageddon Time treads very difficult territory here in bridging Paul’s Jewish upbringing with the systemic inequality that Johnny faces. The reason that Paul’s family came to America, however, obviously differs from the history that puts Johnny at a disadvantage. On the surface, the film risks depoliticizing two very distinct communities that continue to face marginalization. Gray isn’t making Green Book here, though. The film isn’t peddling the patronizing idea that we’re all the same despite our differences. Instead, Gray pragmatically asks what it takes to succeed in a nation where the gaps will never be bridged.
One scene—the film’s best—is the key. Late in the film, Paul’s grandfather delivers words of wisdom. They’re a fine counterpart to Maryann Trump’s stern speech. Grandpa Aaron counsels Paul to keep his friend’s back, no matter what. “You’re going to be a mensch,” he tells Paul. He guides the young boy to be an ally in a rigged game. Gray acknowledges here that the real opportunity for America is to draw from the histories that define it. As the odious messages of Reagans and Trumps filter through Paul’s adolescence, Aaron’s speech—Shakespeare-level good, these words—offers a stirringly unsentimental instruction about growing from experience. America, as he sees it, is where you help others get a leg up.
Hopkins is the soul of Armageddon Time. This masterfully acted scene truly shares the passage of generational wisdom in the simply shot-reverse shot cadence between Hopkins’ weathered face and the inquisitive, thoughtful reaction of young Repeta.
Aaron’s patience is a balm throughout the film. He’s a rock of stability amid the family’s chaotic dinners and bagel brunches. The Graffs always seem to be yelling, even when they have their mouths full. These reaction shots, these glances between Paul and his grandfather attest that the boy is smarter and more observant than his parents give him credit. Gray’s personal look at a family much like his probably won’t win him many fans at the next latke party. However, the portrait of the grandfather is a worthy tribute to a family’s sacrifice. It turns out that Paul’s an artist after all.