I’ve made clear before that I don’t care much for James Gray, but I’ll say this: Armageddon Time is his best movie, in my estimation. Drawn heavily from Gray’s autobiography, this is still lacking in complexity and much in the way of excitement, but it does have the feel of a childhood dilemma that ends up haunting the child well into adulthood.
Taking place in the fall of 1980 in Queens, the story has 10-year-old Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) as Gray’s fictional alter ego. The Jewish boy is going to public school when he befriends a Black kid named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), but when the two of them are caught smoking weed in the boys’ room, Paul’s outraged parents (Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway) pull him out and put him into an exclusive prep school that requires him to wear a blazer and tie.
With one sole exception, the adults uniformly suck here. Paul’s father beats him with a belt after the marijuana use while his mother looks on impassively, and Paul’s older brother (Ryan Sell) laughs at him, which earns him a beating as well. The public school teacher (Andrew Polk) is an idiot and a racist, and the principal (John Dinello) calls Paul “slow” to his face and in front of his mom. It’s no better in the private school, where the other kids drop the n-word freely, guest speakers tell rich white children that no one will hand them anything, and the main source of funding is Fred Trump (John Diehl), the father of the future president, who may just be the worst human being in this story.
The one exception that I mentioned earlier is his grandpa (Anthony Hopkins), an Englishman descended from a mother who fled a Russian pogrom, who tells Paul that it’s his duty to stand up for the Blacks and Latinos in his city, saying, “Be a mensch for them!” That’s hard enough in the halls of his school, and even harder around his family dinner table. The Graffs are Jewish liberals who hate Ronald Reagan to a man, but the grown-ups agree that Paul will straighten out if only they can get him away from those filthy kids of color, and Mom’s decision to run for school board to help the community turns out to be completely empty.
Later on, Paul’s attempt to help Johnny escape to Florida and achieve his dream of becoming a NASA astronaut lands both of them in far worse trouble than smoking a joint. (Rightly, someone tells Johnny that his dream is unrealistic, but it’s not as if the kid is receiving any assistance from that teacher.) While Johnny gets thrown into the system, Paul skates away because of his skin color and because the arresting officer (Domenick Lombardozzi) owes his dad a favor. At home, an unusually subdued Dad acknowledges that Johnny’s fate isn’t fair, which is why Paul shouldn’t give him another thought. If James Gray really did wrong someone at a time in his life when he was too small to know how to put it right, then Armageddon Time is a fine statement of mea culpa.
Starring Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb. Written and directed by James Gray. Rated R.