‘Armageddon Time’ comes of age in Reagan’s America

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Filmmakers, the better ones, don’t make movies about their childhoods because they know how they feel about what happened. They do it because they’re trying to figure it out in hindsight, with a camera.

In “Armageddon Time,” writer-director James Gray revisits his 12-year-old state of mind in this semi-autobiographical depiction of a working-class Jewish family living in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. The year is 1980. Reagan’s America glows on the horizon, even as Reagan gives stump speeches about imminent nuclear Armageddon only he can prevent.

The film begins on the first day of sixth grade in P.S. 173. Two cut-ups, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) and, sitting at the back of the class, Johnny Crocker (Jaylin Webb), waste little time in provoking their congenitally hostile teacher. The man is also a barely disguised racist, muttering “animal” after Johnny — a Black kid living in precarious circumstances with his ailing grandmother — wins the astonished admiration of Paul. “Armageddon Time,” its title taken from the Clash song “Armagideon Time” off the “London Calling” single, charts the beginning and the end of the boys’ friendship.

At home, Paul has a pesky, manipulative older brother (Ryan Sell); an eagle-eyed, star-of-the-PTA mother (Anne Hathaway, who is terrific here); and a tightly wound plumber father (Jeremy Strong, whose inflections sound eerily like filmmaker Gray’s) given to outbursts and violence.

Even with a grandmother (Tovah Feldshuh) given to paranoid warnings (”the Blacks are moving in,” she intones at one point, regarding their neighborhood), Paul is growing up with a sense of family, especially thanks to grandpa Aaron, played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s the wise moral compass for the 12-year-old, a Holocaust survivor (the family’s roots are in Ukraine, we’re told) whose zest for life is a lovely solace for Paul. The boy has taken to speaking like his grandpa, using phrases such as “yes indeed” and “my good man” in his company.

Jaylin Webb, left, and Michael Banks Repeta star in "Armageddon Time." The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester and Queensgate Movies 13.

The movie has a sense of humor, but its sense of dread, micro and macro, overrules it. Paul and Johnny ditch a school field trip to the Guggenheim Museum and hit the video game arcade. Their transgressions grow riskier: Caught by their teacher smoking pot in the boys’ room, the boys are punished. Already, Johnny has been held back a year and the school, the system, has given up on him. Against his wishes, Paul is transferred to his brother’s fancy private school, where none other than real estate mogul Fred Trump (John Diehl) lurks in the hallways, espousing greatness, but really speaking in code about the benefits of being born the right race at the right time.

The price families pay for putting their kids in private-school bubbles, let alone the price the kids pay, is often hard to quantify. And sometimes, not hard at all. Paul’s new schoolmates use racial slurs freely, and suddenly, to this vulnerable, insecure, all-too-malleable boy, his old school and his friendship with Johnny is barely a memory. To whatever degree Gray’s film is, in fact, autobiography, “Armageddon Time” reclaims that memory.

“I don’t have all that many happy memories of my childhood, to be candid,” the filmmaker told The Daily Beast in 2017.

Gray’s latest is often tough to watch, and it lingers a long time in the heart. The look and feel of autumn, on treeless Flushing streets and in wallpapered interiors, hangs in the air in every scene. Cinematographer Darius Khondji romanticizes very little, though in scenes dominated by Hathaway, never better, the warmth comes through even when the character’s about to snap. Paul’s mother more or less drops out of the movie near the end, which is too bad, but she makes every moment count. Strong is equally fine, his face a deadpan mask of barely concealed worry.

Michael Banks Repeta, left, and Anne Hathaway star in "Armageddon Time." The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester and Queensgate Movies 13.

What does Paul learn along the way? This is where Gray’s mixed-up feelings hold back his own movie. The character of Johnny, who uses the Graff’s backyard shed as a temporary crash pad while Paul uneasily keeps his presence a secret, ends up marginalized in the concerns of the screenplay. This is Paul’s story, and the Graff’s story, and the way it’s laid out Johnny can only claim so much of it. That’s a misjudgment in a film nonetheless full of good, tough, affecting encounters. If there’s a longer, better-balanced cut of “Armageddon Time,” I’d like to see it.

This one’s still worth seeing.'ARMAGEDDON TIME'3 stars (out of 4)MPAA rating: R (for language and some drug use involving minors)Running time: 1:55