Armageddon Time Review | Flickreel
From Belfast to Apollo 10 1⁄2, the past few years have seen many established directors craft their love letter to childhood. James Gray’s Armageddon Time doesn’t present life through nostalgia goggles. The film isn’t so much about childhood as it is about the death of childhood. There comes a period when every kid realizes their expectations have been unrealistic, things don’t always work out, and life kind of sucks. This helps distinguish Armageddon Time from other childhood retrospectives. Even with its unsentimental approach, though, the film can feel familiar.
Armageddon Times sets itself in 1980, which shines through in Gray’s direction. The 70s are over, but the 80s haven’t formed an identity yet. The same can be said about Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a Jewish boy growing up in New York. Paul would be his class’ resident smartass if it weren’t for Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an African-American with an unfiltered mouth. Although they seem cut from the same cloth, there are noticeable differences. Where Johnny is barely scraping by with this grandmother, Paul lives a privileged life with his family. While Paul says his parents are rich, they’re middle-class at best. That doesn’t mean Paul isn’t taking certain luxuries for granted, including the fleeting nature of childhood.
Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong play the quintessential Jewish parents. Hathaway’s Esther wears the pants in the family, although Strong’s Irving can be silent yet stern. Anthony Hopkins plays Paul’s grandfather, the only one who embraces his passion for drawing. Paul’s parents would rather he focus more on the future, pushing him to enroll in his jerky older brother’s private school. Paul has gone through life oblivious to the struggles his grandfather endured to make a life for his family in America. While Paul is privileged, the kids at this private school are next level. How privileged are they? Well, Jessica Chastain pops up as Maryanne Trump, who serves as a guest speaker. But hey, Reagan will be President soon, meaning everything will get better!
At its best, Armageddon Times is a brutally honest look at the cruelty of childhood. There’s an especially rough scene between Paul and his father that makes you want to rush to the young protagonist’s defense. Even the lighter moments, such as the banter made at the dinner table, can be uncomfortable to watch. For many of us, though, this was our upbringing. It wasn’t as great are we likely remember, but it was what it was. Armageddon Time comes close to being a spot-on slice of life, but there are moments when it starts to feel more like a work of fiction. This includes a third-act robbery that’s realistic in some ways and contrived in others.
Gray’s script possesses a genuine voice, although aspects come off as underdeveloped. Hathaway has a commanding presence for the first two-thirds only to unceremoniously disappear. Other story arcs, such as the fate of Hopkins’ kindly grandfather, go in the exact direction you’d expect. The ending also comes off as abrupt, leaving the audience not sure how to think. For all these shortcomings, Armageddon Time is exceptionally acted throughout, and more often than not, the film rings true. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the best movies about youth, but it does take us back to that time when everything changed. Growing up isn’t what you expected. Neither is the American Dream that so many spend their lives hopelessly chasing.