A Classic Tale Of American Woe
James Gray’s, Armageddon Time, is what I imagine it must be like to be in a room made entirely of glass. All the walls are mirrors, and so are the floors and the ceilings. There are no doors or windows. Just glass mirrors on all sides. The mirrors slowly crack and the cracks keep getting bigger but the glass never shatters completely. Not yet.
Inspired by Gray’s childhood experiences, the film follows Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) a young Jewish American boy in 1980s Queens NY during Regan’s election. Paul befriends rebellious African American classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb) and starts struggling with extreme pressures from his parents Irving and Esther (Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway) and having to navigate through a world of privilege, inequality, and prejudice.
Armageddon Time has been marketed by many as a coming-of-age story. I see it as more of a memory for the screen. The word memory has a sophisticated darkness to it. An assumed yet not fully finished the tale of woe. Some stories are meant to never finish and Armageddon Time understands this. The film passionately tackles issues of racism, anti semitism, class, and identity. For all the various waters Armageddon Time sails on, it was its portrayal not necessarily of surrendering to the madness of generations past continuously pouring into the present but rather becoming disillusioned by it that resonated with me. Fully realizing the world is that ugly is not a slow burn process. It hits you in the gut all at once but the aftermath is long, silent, and torturous.
All of the characters are vastly different from one another and that’s really what makes the story come alive. The characters always have to be bigger than the storyline. It just so happens that Gray manages to keep so many of them going as the film progresses. Repeta and Webb have such a particular elegance as well as patience for conveying their emotions. When life attacks, it goes through the ears and out the eyes. The heartbreak that’s conveyed is so genuine because all that happens to them is so horrible. Their different lives and different demons they’re battling but there is an unspoken understanding between them about where they’re at. They just discover it at different times. Repeta and Webb seem to be such rare observers for their age and I hope they rise in the industry.
Jeremy Strong, mostly known by now for his role as a broken alcoholic whose thirst for revenge compels him to destroy his abusive father’s legacy on HBO’s Succession, had more to work with here than I predicted. Not all the characters were in the film for as much as I’d have liked but they manage to never become plot devices for the story. The reasons behind the character’s behaviors are so complex and so severe that sometimes when things finally come crashing down, there’s nothing more to say. Strong’s presence keeps looming over the film even when I thought he was done. He is brutal, barbaric, and irredeemable, yet still finds quiet moments that make you choke. He reminds me so much of Denzel Washington in Fences. When he smiles, you can never tell if it’s an angry smile or if he’s being smug.
Anne Hathaway is more of an open book in her performance. Esther doesn’t have the energy to be anything else. She’s one of those people who doesn’t want much but audiences will feel like she does because they see how far away her ideal circumstances are. She loves her children and there are moments of affection but what she needs from them will always come before what may be best for them. Hathaway has many scenes that were just perfect while others I felt could have been longer and given her more to work with. The sincerity in her role is never in question though. Having grown up watching and loving her, perhaps that made it easier for me to fully see her as Esther because she’s the complete opposite of who any fan of Hathaway would want her to be. I didn’t find her as monstrous as her husband but her flaws stem from laziness while his stems from insecurity. If he feels bad about himself, you know he’ll take it out on someone but with her, she feels drained by constant disappointments so when something bad happens, she just shuts down.
I’ve always been fascinated by portrayals of quiet rage. When something makes you so blood-boiling angry, it's the stereotypical thing to explode. Realistically, most people hold it in and you witness their body language and face slowly changing. That’s Esther. She lashes out when she gets frustrated but when she gets furious, she speaks with a calm frankness as she just casually tells people what she’s going to do to them. In other moments, her face is shaking but her head remains still. Years of hard work and dedication haven’t fully paid off and she spirals as Armageddon Time reaches its finish line.
Anthony Hopkins' performance as Esther’s father is oxygen. It’s enough to sustain you so you have the psychological endurance to finish watching the film. He’s so physically affectionate. He seems to represent a new generational ideology of kindness and warmth in men (Particularly men like him who’ve endured quite a lot and have harsh memories from the past.) that the world keeps rejecting. His scenes with Esther and Paul are magnetic. He has a cuddliness to him that’s irresistible. When he offers a hug, you know he means it. If I met him, I don’t think I’d be able to take my arms off him.
Jessica Chastain is only in one scene (I won’t reveal her character’s name but all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when she was announced) as a woman who gives a patronizing speech about success and hard work at Paul’s new waspy private school. The words she speaks ring loudly throughout the rest of the film. I wouldn’t have been surprised if my ears started bleeding. Words hurt when you can taste the odor of their falsehoods in your mouth.
It’s been 42 years since the period in Armageddon Time and it amazes me that people think we’ve changed so much but human nature hasn’t changed. We keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again. The concept of a household is its own America because it consists of multiple people (Often different generations, regardless of whether they’re family or not) living under one roof. Younger generations in families aren’t as willing to just lie down and take it. Once you realize nothing will change, you burn the world around you down to maintain your sanity which is what Armageddon Time becomes.
I could predict politics will definitely destroy many families within the next few years but really, ignorance and the false narrative that being an adult provides you not to be held accountable in certain ways is what will destroy them. As a dark memory, I’d say Armageddon Time is another classic tale of woe from generations past who tells their story to find healing. Yet, I dare say as a fully finished film that’s been sent out into the world, it’s a cautionary tale for many families to embrace the rage that stems from trauma. Sometimes, you just have to fight ignorance with rage. I’m not saying you have to live there but any remaining falsehoods about why you should display good manners to the most ignorant of people will be thrown out in the fire. Maybe that glass room will finally shatter but when the outdated reflections of America vanish, that fire will still be spreading. Only a torrential rainstorm will be able to put it out. Not a teaspoon of water.
Focus Features. (n.d.). Armageddon time (2022). Gateway Film Center. Retrieved November 16, 2022, from https://gatewayfilmcenter.org/movies/armageddon-time-2022/