Ronald Reagan is dead. The world is still here. Clearly, our 40th president was wrong when he hypothesized that his generation might be the one to experience Armageddon, which he did in an appearance on Jim Bakker’s show in the leadup to his 1980 election. The 80s were a relatively quiet period in American history, free from war and radical social upheavals, though the threat of a nuclear holocaust loomed large. Reagan, one of the only men with the power to use atomic weapons, wondered often if End Times were near.
They were — but not for him. He failed to respond to the AIDS crisis, allowing tens of thousands of Americans to die without comment. He dealt arms to foreign paramilitary groups to aid in toppling leftist governments, escalating deadly conflicts abroad. He cut back environmental regulations, opening the door for climate change to wreak havoc upon future generations (like us). His “War On Drugs” and infamous disdain for “welfare queens” were coded attacks on Black Americans, a way of reorganizing white racism now that Jim Crow-style bigotry was out of fashion. And he beefed up the United States military, ensuring that if doomsday was on the horizon, it would at least feature a lot of cool American explosions before we were wiped off the face of the planet.
Reagan never saw Judgment Day, but he made life hellish for a number of human beings who didn’t fit into his vision of a straight, white, Christian USA. He envisioned the end of the world as something that might happen to him, rather than something he could inflict upon the world — which is a ridiculous stance to take when you’re the most powerful man in the world. He was obsessed with the idea of Armageddon before, during, and after his presidency; his belief in it explains his myopia, setting the tone for a decade that was all about getting as much as you could as fast as possible, future generations be damned. Ironically, his short-sightedness stuck around; conservatives have adopted his vision of a perishable America and are now gleefully pushing us to the brink of apocalypse themselves. If there is an Armageddon headed for us, Reagan might be pleased to know he played a big part in making it happen.
James Gray’s Armageddon Time begins in the third quarter of 1980, with Reagan’s presidency lurking in the shadows, ready to strike. Summer is giving way to autumn, disco is ceding to hip-hop, and the free-spirited 70s are passing the baton to a decade that will be remembered primarily by Gordon Gekko’s catchphrase “greed is good.” Reagan appears on the Graff family television in an early scene, blabbering about Judgment Day. (You might think that’d be concerning to a majority of voters in 1980, but you’d be mistaken.)
The film’s title is a nod to Ronny’s doomsday fixation, as well as the reggae song “Armagideon Time,” recorded by Black musician Willie Williams in the late 70s. The Clash covered “Armagideon Time” as the B-side to their iconic hit “London Calling” in 1979, ensuring that the reproduction by the white punk band would be more widely listened to than Williams’ original. Armageddon Time is more of an intimate family drama than an overtly political film, but it is framed by a young white boy’s friendship with a Black classmate, depicting his slow-growing awareness of the different directions their lives are headed in due to his white privilege. In a just world, both boys would have the same opportunities, and the better-known version of “Armagideon Time” would be the original one by the Black Jamaican reggae artist.
Armageddon Time‘s young protagonist is Paul (Banks Repeta), a stand-in for James Gray himself in this very personal film. He’s the less-favored child in the tight-knit but frequently confrontational Graff family, headed by perpetually striving home repairman Irving (Jeremy Strong) and harried PTA mom Esther (Anne Hathaway). His older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) picks on him, but gets away with it because of his presumably bright future. Paul rarely gets a pass. His world-wise grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) is the only family member he really respects, and vice versa. The Graffs are middle-class Jews living in Queens, with enough money to send their kids to private school if need be, but not enough money to not worry about the money. The film’s main arc follows Paul’s friendship with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), one of his few Black classmates.Paul is too young to care about politics, though he does recognize conservative nonsense when he hears it. Maryanne Trump, of all people, commandeers a school assembly to preach about how important it is to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, completely oblivious to the fact that her hard work only paid off because she started at an incredible advantage, not because she actually worked harder than everyone else. (For further proselytization of this sentiment, follow any wealthy Republican on Twitter.) Paul has no reservations about befriending Johnny, but nearly every other white character reveals indifference toward or distrust of Black people over the course of the film (if not outright hatred). Gradually, Paul realizes that two young boys are no match for generations of entrenched white power in the United States; this unstoppable force is determined to divide them, and little by little, it does.
The family favors Jimmy Carter in the upcoming election. When Reagan’s victory is finally declared, Esther laments that the world will be lost to nuclear terror. (She’s not being irrational; Reagan said it himself.) The older Jews in the family have witnessed discrimination firsthand, and far worse; the rise of the Holocaust motivated their migration to America two generations earlier. Though they might be considered “liberal” in 1980, the Graffs are not immune to the materialism that will come to define the decade, nor the commonplace racism of the 1980s; their attitudes toward Johnny feel painfully conservative by today’s standards, even if they’re not as blatantly bigoted as Paul’s peers, who still shamelessly use a certain epithet. As Jews, the Graffs know oppression and discrimination not unlike that which Johnny faces now; as Americans, they feel entitled to turn their backs and do for themselves.
The Graffs are not as privileged as other families at the boys’ private school (including, lamentably, the Trumps). Esther likes to drive down the streets with the expensive houses and dream of owning one, though she’s aware that it’s a fantasy. Irving believes providing for his family financially means more than offering stable emotional support. Paul’s parents clearly love him, and Gray portrays them with sympathy and respect, but the backward glance isn’t as rosy as it is in other nostalgia pieces. Esther and Irving are deeply flawed — frequently self-absorbed, often insensitive, sometimes obtuse, and occasionally monstrous. But in depicting his parents as as defective, with clear-eyed honesty about their foibles and failings, Gray’s film only seems to look back at them with more love, not less. It works because he allows his proxy, Paul, to blunder in the face of moral testing, too, just as Gray did in real life. First and foremost, Armageddon Time is about Gray’s first critical failure as a human being — succumbing to societal pressures instead of fighting for justice.
If a lesser filmmaker were doing the reminiscing, Armageddon Time might have gone the self-congratulatory route. Paul would be a heroic anti-racist, standing up for his Black friend against a prejudiced world — a protagonist tailor-made to suit 2022’s moviegoers. A more facile film would cast Paul as “the good kid” and Johnny as the delinquent who tempts him to stray from the straight and narrow; the deck would be stacked against Johnny from the start. Instead, Armageddon Time is painfully truthful about Paul’s shortcomings. Both boys are equivalent hooligans, enabling each other down the rabbit hole of petty crime and adolescent troublemaking. Their sixth grade teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), hates them both. Slyly, though, Gray observes differences in the way Turkeltaub hates each boy; his exasperated dismissal of Johnny as an “animal” is a borderline slur. Johnny is segregated as “the Other” at school — and by Paul’s family, and also in the eyes of the law. Paul is no golden boy himself, but he’s safe in a way that Johnny is not. The Graffs’ whiteness and middle-class income provide a cushion that will soften any blow he’s dealt. Paul has years of youthful rebellion ahead, if he so chooses, but the clock is already ticking on Johnny. Even at this young age, Johnny sees white America pushing and pushing him toward a prison of one kind or another — poverty, addiction, or actual incarceration. A young Black boy’s juvenile recklessness can have ruinous lifelong consequences. Paul’s will not.
Gray’s most recent films, The Lost City Of Z and Ad Astra, are larger in scope than the character dramas that began his career (We Own The Night and Two Lovers among them), which Armageddon Time better resembles (at least on the surface). The Lost City Of Z is the story of a man’s obsessive quest after a legendary lost city in the jungles of South America — a manic passion that gradually destroys his family. In Ad Astra, an astronaut heads into space to retrieve his unstable, potentially murderous father from a botched mission amongst the stars. Both films are about chasing down myths; in each, the searching matters more than the finding. Both are about fathers and sons undertaking treacherous, impossible adventures — crusades that turn out to be fatal for one or both parties.
Either film could be titled Armageddon Time, and it would fit. Gray’s latest is further removed from the looming sense of doom that made The Lost City Of Z and Ad Astra so gripping, but it’s a telling origin story for an artist whose recent work has carefully walked the thin line between redemption and annihilation. Paul’s quest is a great deal less epic than real-life British explorer Percy Fawcett’s, or fictional astronaut Roy McBride’s, though it is not necessarily less meaningful. Paul is a budding artist, undisciplined but bursting with creativity and raw talent. He was born into a family with no appreciation for art. Neither his parents nor his teachers encourage him; his grandfather is the only one who sees any potential in him whatsoever. Irving and Esther long ago ceased their own searches for meaning, as grownups tend to do. Their hope, his mother says, is now entirely focused on their children. They want their kids to be better off than they were, his father tells him. But neither parent is supportive of Paul’s artistic talent, the journey he wants to go on. Paul and Johnny are both interested in NASA, but earthly concerns will soon dissuade them from reaching for the stars. And only one of these boys has even the slightest chance of taking off.In this way, Paul’s endeavors quietly end up feeling as epic as those of the wayward wanderers of Ad Astra and The Lost City Of Z. Paul is coming of age in America in the 1980s, a decade to be entirely shaped by hawkish conservatives. He’s enrolled in a private school where members of the Trump family stalk the halls. Many of his peers are racists. Even his own parents think he’s no good. For a sensitive, thoughtful boy with the soul of an artist, this landscape might as well be the most perilous depths of the Amazon, or the coldest corner of space. If Paul wants to be an artist, or even just a good person, he’ll have to do it alone. Every tenet of his environment is pushing him in another direction — dissuading him from hanging out with Black friends, crushing his dreams of becoming the next Kandinsky. If the universe has its way, he’ll be a materialistic racist with a sensible job he hates; Paul will either push back, or be swept away with the tide of the times.
Some people are products of their environment. Paul isn’t. Armageddon Time is set in Queens in 1980, but unlike most period pieces, it isn’t about how this protagonist is shaped by, or reacting to, the times. Paul stands completely outside this era. Others may get swallowed up living in the moment, but Paul senses his own moment ahead, on the horizon. He’s aware of a future his parents can’t conceive of, and he steadily marches toward it — because he, unlike the new president and his acolytes, refuses to stay put and brace for an apocalypse that may or may not be coming.
Armageddon Time suggests that Paul will get to keep his individuality — and his soul — through some combination of privilege, luck, and self-determination. It’s a muted triumph, for it comes, in part, at the expense of another boy’s future. Paul doesn’t have the power to change Johnny’s fate. Nor does he have the will to go down swinging in a battle against everything that’s wrong in America, 1980. That’s a lot to ask of one sixth grader.
With its eye on racism in 80s America, some viewers might expect a punchier, more patently dramatic film, because that’s what we’re used to with such weighty subject matter. Historical racism is often viewed through a deeply tragic lens, as in 12 Years A Slave, Selma, or Till; sometimes, dramatic events are meant to provide kumbaya catharsis, as in The Help or Green Book. The stakes are usually life or death. Armageddon Time is less conspicuous, speaking not to sweeping historical events but the racism we might witness day after day for years on end, the kind of bigotry it’s all too easy to turn a blind eye to.
Armageddon Time is fully lived-in, gentle and observational to match its protagonist. It shares DNA with other coming-of-age films that dwell on the mundane more than the extraordinary, including Boyhood and Lady Bird. Like Roma, it’s a belated appreciation of someone who didn’t get their due back in the day. And, as in Belfast and Spielberg’s upcoming The Fabelmans, Gray can’t resist working a family outing to the movies into the plot. But here, Paul is not transformed by or even particularly interested in the film they’ve seen. In Gray’s eyes, Paul’s coming-of-age story isn’t inherently more cinematic than any other kid’s — he strips away the usual boyhood melodrama, the banal bullying and cloying crushes, to pinpoint the birth of an awareness that became something of a guiding light for him, first as a person, then as an artist. The plot remains remarkably faithful to his actual childhood, without the usual exaggerations films based on true stories make. A more sensationalized film would put a buffer between today’s audience and its decades-old racism; Armageddon Time‘s smallness allows no such distance. The choices Paul is asked to make are ones people still make every day. If you can’t relate, you’re clearly not trying to.
Certain politicians trade on dividing us down arbitrary lines — race, sex, class, religion, and so on. It’s such a part of the fabric, children are made to accept it as the status quo before they’re even aware it exists. Armageddon Time is the story of a wedge, driven slowly but surely between two boys who are similar in all the ways that matter and different only in ways that shouldn’t. The boys fight back, but what use is that when they’re up against an escalating series of authority figures — parents, teachers, policemen, Trumps, and Ronald Reagan — as well as the looming apocalypse that their president has promised them?