Download: Cannes Dispatch – Armageddon Time
It annoys me sometimes when I read critics describe films as being the most “personal” work of their makers. We don’t know that. How can anyone presume to know if a work of fiction means something personal to someone else? Having said that, it’s hard to see a coming-of-age film as gently observed and lovingly rendered as ARMAGEDDON TIME and not make that assumption. It’s a story about loss, change, and those first realizations in life that shape us as adults. Be warned, James Gray is getting personal here and coming for all those feels.
Set in 1980’s Brooklyn, the film revolves around sixth-grader Paul who grew up in an affluent Jewish immigrant family. Paul is a somewhat different child. Despite his parents’ best efforts, he lives inside his head, a free, artful place that clashes with the many rules of the real world. Unlike his older brother, Paul goes to a public school where he meets kids from less privileged backgrounds like Johnny, a boy who – just for the color of his skin – has had to learn to fight all his life. Paul becomes fast friends with Johnny over their shared love of music and a common problem with following orders. As the two start to navigate life and make their first mistakes, Paul begins to see how different their journeys will be in an America about to have Ronald Reagan as its leader.
Gray’s screenplay is a stunner. Written entirely from a child’s perspective, it captures the wonder, frustration, despair, and many mysteries a young person is confronted with while trying to come into their own. When a Kandinsky painting sends Paul into a reverie, that sense of pure, awe-struck inspiration is treated with levity but without any condescension. And when Paul’s father physically punishes him and announces he’s going to a private school like his brother, we’re made to feel his fear and devastation in all its intensity. That’s what makes childhood experiences so special. Unpolluted and unprotected by cynicism, everything we felt was real. And Gray’s screenplay reminds you of that emotional truth spoken by every child.
The story also sees Paul caught in the first moral dilemma of his life after the escape plan he concocted with the help of Johnny went south. Without any hesitation, his family bails him out and explains to him the unjust but necessary idea of self-preservation. It’s heartbreaking to see him take in the meaning of those words, it’s like watching someone grow up in front of our eyes.
The title ARMAGEDDON TIME relates on the one hand to those first big changes and lessons in life that bring an end to the world as we knew it. On the other hand, it refers specifically to the “Sodom and Gomorrah” quote from the televised interview Reagan gave in 1979, one year before he was elected President. As the defining zeitgeist of 80’s America, conservatism and its implications for race, class, social justice are very much embedded in the fabric of this film. It’s horrifying to see the casual racism that Johnny has to endure even at such a young age, and it’s absolutely chilling how every word from the speech given by Maryanne Trump at Paul’s new private school still sounds so familiar 40 plus years later.
The ensemble cast led by Banks Repeta as Paul and Jaylin Webb as Johnny is terrific. There’s genuine warmth to Repeta’s presence and his smile often has an uncertain, almost apologetic quality that provides much nuance to the character. In the physical punishment scene, he shows great intensity that really brings home the world-ending panic felt so acutely by the young. Webb has natural charisma to spare and effortlessly communicates the resilience of someone forced to fend for themselves at every turn. Among the supporting players, Anthony Hopkins unsurprisingly shines as Paul’s grandfather, the only one in the family who seems to be able to talk to him. His appeal to Paul about always being a mensch is delivered with touching moral outrage, and a late scene where he struggles to find the words to bid farewell to his grandson will break your heart. Anne Hathaway also gives a lovely performance as Paul’s mother. Alternating between the über-confident PTA president and the matriarch shaken by changes in the family, she shows shades of emotions and temperaments we’ve seldom seen from her. Also, Jessica Chastain only shows up for that one scene as Maryanne Trump but she kills that cursed speech.
Shot by Darius Khondji, the film looks moodily, nostalgically beautiful, bringing you back to a place in time and most importantly, to a world seen through someone else’s eyes. The glorious thing about “personal” films is that, while they are often composed of highly specific, individual experiences of the filmmakers, they tend to ultimately reveal human truths that we can all relate to. Whether it’s Belfast in the late 60’s, Mexico City in the 70’s or Brooklyn in the 80’s, I’m grateful to have traveled through the works of Kenneth Branagh, Alfonso Cuarón and now James Gray and re-discovered myself everytime, everywhere.