If we were to poll French critics and filmmakers about who their favorite American filmmaker might be, many of us would be surprised at their answers. Their response would often be James Gray, one of our most important auteurs who, for whatever reason, has consistently underwhelmed at the box office. This is regardless of the fact that the quality of his output is on par with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson. Perhaps we should pay attention because French critics have tended to recognize our own greatness before we do. We now have the chance to acknowledge the man’s excellence with Armageddon Time, which he wrote and directed.
Armageddon Time is Gray retelling his coming-of-age story in the 1980s through the life of Paul (Banks Repeta). Paul is a precocious child with a creative bent frustrated with the strictures of his middle-class Jewish existence in Queens. His parents, played by Jeremy Strong and Anna Hathaway, giving their best work, are loving but also exhausted by their son’s inability to channel his energies into academics.
Paul has two friends: his Grandpa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins in his greatest performance in years) and Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black boy secretly living in destitute conditions. Both Paul and Johnny are consistently in trouble at their school. As a result of the one-sided consequences of their escapades, Paul begins to see the structural disadvantages placed upon Johnny because he consistently bears the brunt of the punishment, even though they are partners in crime.
“…Paul begins to see the structural disadvantages placed upon Johnny…”
Their paths diverge in emotionally devastating ways as Paul is forced to go to a preparatory school (with which a former President’s family is associated), and Johnny’s housing situation becomes increasingly precarious. Paul’s Grandpa subsequently instills a strong sense of justice during an affecting moment in a local park. His close family had to flee Europe because of rising antisemitism, so he has a lot to say about the injustices being piled upon Johnny. It’s the most heart-wrenching scene of the year and sets the stage for the rest of the film.
Armageddon Time is executed flawlessly, with all of the cast at the top of their game. From a technical standpoint, the film is just as gorgeous as we’ve come to expect from Gray. Director of photography Darius Khondji delivers some of his best work, proving that shooting on digital can and should look as good as film with the right amount of care.
Hathaway has come a long way from The Devil Wears Prada. It’s also a pleasure to see Jeremy Strong outside of Succession. But the kids are the focus here. Repeta starts the film as a doe-eyed innocent but gradually becomes cognizant of his advantages over the circumstances of Johnny. Webb’s performance is equally affecting to the point that it’s honestly difficult to handle the tragedy on display.
Fate is a cruel mistress because the same year that James Gray releases Armageddon Time, Spielberg does the same thing with The Fabelmans, which has already overshadowed Gray’s nostalgic masterwork. I loved Spielberg’s film, but to my eye, Gray connects the past and present in much more convincing terms. It may not provide the same sense of exhilaration because of the heavy nature of the material. But it’s the rare work that confronts the uncomfortable truths of the world – namely that life is far from fair, and no individual can achieve success without the support of others who may not be dealt a great hand in life.