After blasting Brad Pitt into outer space for 2019’s Ad Astra, the biggest hit of his career, writer-director James Gray returns to terra firma for the most personal film he’s ever made. Armageddon Time is a coming-of-age saga, set in 1980 in Queens, New York, making Gray the latest director to root around his childhood for inspiration, following Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma) and Paolo Sorrentino (The Hand of God).
The stand-in for Gray is Paul (Banks Repeta), the youngest of two sons in the blue collar Graff family. His father Irving (Succession’s Jeremy Strong) is a plumber, who has a hell of a temper on him, beating Paul into a snivelling mess when he gets caught smoking pot in school. His mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) is more refined, heading the PTA group at Paul’s school. At least until Paul’s weed indiscretion.
The family member Paul’s closest to is his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), who takes him to the park to release toy rockets into the air, buys him presents, and encourages his desire to be an artist. For all his misbehaving, bucking against authority, Paul is sensitive, absorbing influences around him. He visits the Guggenheim on a class trip and re-produces a Kandinsky for his art class.
Paul also befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who will inadvertently teach him just how life can be deeply unfair. From a poor Black local family, Johnny lives with his ailing grandmother. A good kid at heart but drawn to trouble like a magnet, he’s also made painfully aware of the hand he’s been dealt. He’d better ditch those dreams of working for NASA, he’s told by one older Black teenager he meets on the subway – a thoroughly depressing moment.
While the focus is Paul’s immediate environment, the film doesn’t ignore the world around it. Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign – much to the disgust of Irving – plays out in the background. The title is specifically a nod to a comment made by Reagan on cable TV, where he pronounced: “We might be the generation that sees Armageddon.” It would be his administration that ushered in the chilliest era of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war loomed large. The film also captures the tipping point just before Reagan ushers in his hotly debated ‘Reaganomics’ – policies that some argue increased wealth inequality hugely. Paul’s school is visited by Maryanne Trump – sister to you-know-who. Played by Jessica Chastain (in a slightly bizarre, off-putting cameo), she tells the assembled pupils that they are the elite-in-waiting. It’s a disturbing Republican rally cry, while the lyrics of The Clash’s ‘Armagideon Time’, a reggae cover recorded in ’79, even spring to mind: “A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight.”
Superbly marshalled by Gray, the ensemble cast is excellent – though if you had to pick a stand-out, it’d be Hopkins, as the kindly-but-principled grandfather. He casts a huge shadow over the film, a moral compass for all to follow. While Hopkins was rightly awarded an Oscar for his portrayal of dementia in The Father, this turn as a man reaching his own Armageddon time is every bit as moving.
- Director: James Gray
- Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins
- Release date: November 18 (in cinemas)