Armageddon Time is latest awards contender from director James Gray (Ad Astra). Set in 1980, during the election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Armageddon Time is a coming-of-age story featuring a sixth grader named Paul (Banks Repeta) and his friendship with a Black classmate played by Jaylin Webb. Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway play the young boy’s father and mother, and Anthony Hopkins plays the boy’s grandfather. Rather than the basic plot of a lot of coming-of-age tales, Armageddon Time focuses on Paul’s moral and ethical development.
Late in the film but featured in the trailer is a scene in which Paul’s grandfather tells him to be a “mensch,” to act with honor and integrity, to stand up for people getting picked on and oppressed. That scene and the difficulties in being a mensch is at the heart of Armageddon Time’s conflicts. The film demands its characters answer questions like: what is one’s obligation in the face of injustice? How do we learn right from wrong? What values inscribe rightness from wrongness?
Guiding Paul are two father figures, one in the form of his grandfather, who represents idealistic morality that he sometimes fails to put into practice, and his father, who represents pragmatic mortality that seems so convenient, privileged, and inept in the face of moral crises. The plot puts these two forms of moral reasoning against each other in themes that surround race relations, class consciousness, and parental/societal discipline. And to add one even more provocative layer onto the film, Armageddon Time charts what it sees as the moral degradation of America at the turn of the 1970s to the 1980s against Paul’s own moral development.
Though I found the ending to be unsatisfying and it’s true that the elements of the film that are inspired by abstract expressionism don’t make for a cohesive plot, Armageddon Time is a profoundly interesting, intelligent film that critics and audiences can dissect for days. At the same time, it is a gripping, intense drama, highlighted by some excellent actors at the top of their games. Hathaway and Hopkins give reliably stellar performances, and the young actors, Repeta and Webb, are remarkable. Above all else, if you’re not watching Jeremy Strong right now, you’re missing one of the best living actors working today. From Succession to Armageddon Time, he sinks into the character, and somehow wrings pathos out of even the most unlikely scenes.
During the summer, The Black Phone captured the oppressiveness of childhood, but that horror film had a hopeful conclusion; now, during the autumn and heading into the winter, that same oppressiveness is back in Armageddon Time, and the conclusion is much more bleak.