Armageddon Time (Review) – A Nostalgia-Free Account Of Childhood

DIRECTOR: James Gray

CAST: Banks Repeta, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Jaylin Webb, Ryan Sell, Tovah Feldshuh, Dane West, Landon James Forlenza, Andrew Polk, Richard Bekins, Jacob MacKinnon, Domenick Lombardozzi, John Diehl, Jessica Chastain

RUNNING TIME: 115 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: In early 1980s New York, a young Jewish-American boy (Repeta) faces hardships and discrimination…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

One thing in common that some recent movies by filmmakers presenting semi-autobiographical accounts of their childhoods all seem to have is a sense of rose-tinted nostalgia for that period in their lives. As good as Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God may have been (and nothing but good things have been said about Steven Spielberg’s own upcoming past revisitation The Fabelmans), and as dark and unsettling as some of them could get, there is often a joyful recollection of that mostly innocent time in their lives being depicted in their features.

Not so much with James Gray’s own dramatization of his earlier years, for his new film Armageddon Time wisely does away with the easy nostalgia of childhood, and instead goes for a much more sombre, harsher, and at times rather bleak retelling that doesn’t make it easy viewing by any means, but one can still appreciate the level of craftmanship that has gone into making it.

Set in New York during the early 1980s, we follow Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a young boy from a Jewish-American family who dreams of one day becoming an artist, an ambition that is discouraged by his strict parents Esther and Irving (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) but supported by his loving grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins). At school, he makes friends with a rebellious Black student named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who is subject to increasingly harsh treatment by their teachers for reasons that are sadly obvious, but when the two of them get into trouble for bringing drugs into the school, Paul’s parents send him to a more refined private school in the hopes of teaching him some discipline, while forbidding him from socialising with Johnny – not that this stops the boys from still remaining in contact, which results in some tough lessons of life for both of them.

Rather than pick a bright shining spot of his childhood to centralise, Gray opts for a dour and sobering tone that presents things for how they actually were, and not how he fondly remembers them to be. The home life of his young avatar Paul is far from a bed of roses, for his is a household filled with argumentative passive-aggression, blatant prejudice – while they consider themselves to be progressive liberals who scoff at then-Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan on the TV, their attitude towards certain ethnic minorities is no better than the conservative types they like to bad-mouth – and, at times, some disturbing moments of physical and emotional abuse. Likewise, the schools that he goes to are filled with such open discrimination that at times it almost beggars belief; teachers will scream at his Black friend for offenses that are significantly less disruptive than Paul himself has done, students will casually drop offensive racial slurs into their vocabulary, and even he faces an uphill battle at his new school due to his Jewish heritage, especially when the place appears to be run by a certain businessman by the name of Fred Trump (John Diehl, with Jessica Chastain also showing up for one scene as his daughter Maryanne). At no point does Gray make it apparent that this was an experience that he looks back on with love or fondness, which adds a level of sensibility to his approach because he manages to make the viewer feel like they, along with his young protagonist, are also going through an important wake-up call that life isn’t as exciting or endearing as we once saw it to be, instead of just putting a happier filter over some very uncomfortable truths.

Gray’s low-key filmmaking skills are a vital part of his film getting to the sour root of its themes and messages, with dark-lit cinematography, gently slow editing and a slew of naturalistic performances that almost make Armageddon Time look and feel like a long-lost Francis Ford Coppola movie. The intentionally drab and even ugly visuals further emphasise the harsh conditions in which these young boys live and socialise in, sometimes to where it’s shot like a horror film in disguise as tensions always threaten to boil over and menacing figures are just waiting to make themselves known. It is impressive how these components cause such discomfort in the viewer, which can make it seem far less appealing than something like, say, Belfast, but at the same time you have no choice but to give this filmmaker respect for simply telling it like it is and not giving his audience the crowd-pleaser that they probably craved instead.

If it’s a happier and more uplifting semi-autobiographical take that you do indeed want, then maybe wait for The Fabelmans to come out – until then, Armageddon Time is a refreshingly nostalgia-free look back on a childhood that does not shy away from the uncomfortable conditions that this person probably faced back then.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Armageddon Time is a bleak but sobering semi-autobiographical drama from filmmaker James Gray that rejects easy childhood nostalgia in favour of a much more uncomfortably real depiction of a time period that was full of prejudice and tough love, all told with impressive filmmaking akin to the works of Francis Ford Coppola.

Armageddon Time is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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