When I heard about James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, I was pretty interested. A film about a Jewish family in Queens in 1980? Count me in. Then I saw the cast list and that ramped up my interest even more. Jeremy Strong, Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins? Wow.
While those three do pretty outstanding work here, the movie is really centered around 11-year-old Paul Graff, an avatar for Gray in this autobiographical look at his experience growing up. Paul is an odd kid, or odd by the standards of a conventional 6th grade class. He’s a bit of a wiseass. He likes to draw more than anything. And he is quite shy and finds it hard to express himself except in burst of either anger or impudence. He also befriends a black child who his teacher obviously hates and who disrupts the class at every opportunity. Johnny has reason to act out. His parents are gone, his brother works for NASA in Florida (does he really?) and he lives with his grandmother but is pretty much on his own.
Paul’s reasons for being a pain are less clear. It is not a play for attention, more like a little kid trying to find himself, trying to find his place. He doesn’t fit in and pushes back the only way he knows how.
Strong is Paul’s father Irving, a handyman and electrician. Hathaway plays his mother Esther, an art teacher and president of the PTA. Hopkins is Hathaway’s father, a Jewish immigrant whose family escaped the Nazis, settled in Liverpool before moving to the United States. Paul’s best relationship is with his grandfather. The two have a deep bond and Hopkin’s character obviously has deep affection for his grandson. Some of the best parts of the movie are the family teaching Paul about anti-Semitism and discrimination. The parents don’t want Paul hanging with Johnny. But Grandpa sees what is going on and applauds Paul’s for standing up for his friend, a boy shoved aside by society.
Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb have great chemistry as Paul and Johnny. You get the feeling they are friends and Paul really cares about Johnny. He tries to help him, to the point of criminal activity. Again, it isn’t acting out so much as searching on Paul’s part. Where do I belong? What is my role?
All the acting is wonderful, Repeta nails the outcast kid role. But Hopkins is in full Hopkins mode. His passionate explanation of his family history. How he teaches Paul what is right. All of it just sings.
Gray’s movie is obviously deeply felt and explores some important themes. I couldn’t help but feel how timely it is give how anti-Semitism seems to be back with a vengeance. Not that it ever went anywhere, but it seems ok to offend Jews whenever you want.
ARMAGEDDON TIME is yet another great film from a great filmmaker. And it is worth seeking out in a theater or streaming.