‘Armageddon Time’ Is A Worthy Investment, But Probably Not The Oscar Contender It Was Intended To Be
ith its outstanding cast, a semi-autobiographical premise set a generation ago, and a focus on topics that (sadly) are as topical in the 2020s as they were in the 1980s, ‘Armageddon Time’ was almost certainly given a late fall release so it would be fresh in the minds of awards season voters.
Picture it: Queens, 1980. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a newly minted sixth grader, is searching for his niche, his place in the world. On the first day of school, the artist/dreamer/would-be class clown befriends an African American classmate, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), the only person in his class that attracts more heat from their teacher.
Michael Banks Repeta as Paul Graff and Jaylin Webb as Johnny Crocker in director James Gray’s ‘Armageddon Time,’ a Focus Features release. (Photo courtesy of Anne Joyce/Focus Features © 2022 Focus Features, LLC.)
The boys bond over shared interests, namely music and outer space, and neither are oblivious to the fact that Johnny is treated much more harshly than Paul, despite them acting similarly.
That, however, is where the similarities end. Johnny lives a seemingly meager life with his disabled grandmother who barely remembers/recognizes him and idolizes his older brother, who is in the military. Conversely, Paul is surrounded by his reasonably well-off Jewish American family, father Irving (Jeremy Strong) and mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), older brother/frequent sparring partner, Ted (Ryan Sell), and his stern but supportive grandparents, Aaron and Mickey Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins and Tovah Feldshuh).
As the boys’ antics evolve from childish mischief to criminal acts, Paul’s parents pull him out of his public school and away from his newfound “bad influence” and enroll him in a private school. Paul struggles with his desires to fit in with his new classmates and to stay true to his values and beliefs.
If you’re looking for a movie that takes on subjects like racism, antisemitism, and socioeconomic inequity in a subtle manner, you’ll want to look elsewhere. ‘Armageddon Time’ tackles all of those (and more) with the subtlety of a marching band in a quiet library, with Aaron’s wisdom-filled monologues often being the voice of reason.
If I’m being completely honest, I’m a sucker for any good story that depicts a strong grandfather-grandson relationship; I had two great ones that I didn’t get nearly enough time with, so seeing that bond play out on the big screen offers a bit of comfort. The on-screen chemistry between Repeta and Hopkins is palpable and makes that relationship pop off the screen.
Michael Banks Repeta as Paul Graff and Anthony Hopkins as Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz in director James Gray’s ‘Armageddon Time,’ a Focus Features release. (Photo courtesy of Anne Joyce/Focus Features © 2022 Focus Features, LLC.)
Hathaway and Strong are unsurprisingly solid as the caring, but often overbearing parents; and Webb brings a nice mix of the self-sufficient young man that had to grow up too soon and the scared, insecure little boy that had to grow up too soon to counter Paul’s comfortable and often coddled personality.
The characters really make this movie, as the story drags at times, making its 115-minute runtime feel a bit long. And there are times where it crosses the line between eye-opening and preachy, although those moments are short-lived and are quickly reined back in.
Writer/director James Gray has crafted a charming and emotional story of family and friendship, and how both can be messy yet supportive. A story about adolescence and struggling to find your place in the world. A story about doing what’s right, even when it’s not easy.
It may not end up being the Oscar bait it was clearly intended to be, but ‘Armageddon Time’ is worth a two-hour investment, if for no other reason than to watch the Repeta-Hopkins dynamic at play.
★★★½ of ★★★★★