Filmmakers often tell the story of their childhood through their pictures; recent examples of this include Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. Acclaimed writer and director James Gray looks back at his own formative years in Armageddon Time, a coming-of-age drama set in Queens, New York City in 1980. The semi-autobiographical plot follows schoolkid Paul (Banks Repeta) who becomes friends with black student Johnny (Jaylin Webb) on his first day of sixth grade, bonding over their fascination with space travel. His mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) and father Irving (Jeremy Strong) struggle to cope with their son’s regular mischievous behaviour, but he always listens to his grandpa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) who inspires and mentors the youngster, delivering nuggets of wisdom and teaching him about the importance of his family’s Jewish roots.
On paper, this can be seen as quite a straightforward tale of growing up, but there is a lot of thematic subtext at play. A study of race, class, and politics against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s looming Presidential reign, these elements are woven into Gray’s narrative brilliantly; there’s even an appearance from the Trumps which is handled pretty well within the context of the story. He shoots with a rich, gravy-stain sheen which feels suitably authentic to the time without coming across as nostalgic or sentimental. This is a refreshing change of pace for a film of this ilk, not reflecting with rose-tinted glasses but instead recognising and acknowledging the flaws and racist undertones of his family, despite their outwardly liberal status in the community.
There are great performances across the board from this cast. Repeta’s performance doesn’t shy away from how selfish and annoying 11-year-olds can be, and this grounding in reality makes his adolescent friendship with Johnny feel wholly believable. As good as these child actors are, the standout turns come from the more experienced performers. Anne Hathaway is unusually understated, with a quiet ruthlessness when her position on the school’s PTA is threatened by Paul’s conduct. Jeremy Strong is superb in his rather volatile role, transforming from goofy nerd-dad into vicious disciplinarian with a deft flick of a switch. However, it’s Sir Anthony Hopkins that’ll get the share of the plaudits. With a part not dissimilar to Ciarán Hinds roguish ‘pop’ in the aforementioned Belfast, there’s a lovely tenderness to the performance that feels utterly convincing, not at all from the Werther’s Original school of cinema grandfathers. It’s remarkable that an icon of the industry is delivering work of this calibre at this late stage of his career, and we should savour every scene.
With Armageddon Time, James Gray presents an unsweetened illustration of the pursuit of the American dream. Whilst Paul and Johnny fantasise about NASA and rocket ships, this stunning period piece keeps its feet firmly on the ground and is all the better for it.