'Armageddon Time' Is Now

James Gray's latest film is a Jewish reckoning told through the director's childhood memories

A scene from 'Armageddon Time'
Focus Features
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Armageddon Time takes its title from Ronald Reagan, who warned in 1980 that his generation may be the one that sees Armageddon. Did Armageddon happen? No doubt the ‘80s were filled with violence and economic instability, but so too were the ensuing ‘90s and ‘00s. It’s no better now either. Perhaps Reagan foresaw a perpetual end of days, an endless harbinger of disaster. The world has always been ending, and now it’s James Gray’s turn to tell us exactly how.

Gray himself makes films that are polarizing and complicated, rich with empathy and pain. His 2017 film The Lost City of Z was a vastly underrated jungle adventure that was light on swashbuckling and heavy with reckoning, a treatise on colonialism and obsession. Gray’s films, especially in the last decade, are often obsessed with the relationships between fathers and sons. Armageddon Time continues that line of thought, and is perhaps his most emotionally raw work yet. He joins his auteur peers telling their own life stories, a trend that is in no way recent, but certainly recently indulged, starting with Alfonso Cuarón’s meticulous Roma before tumbling into Kenneth Branagh’s weepy Belfast, all coming on the heels of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. Gray, like Cuarón before him, returns to his childhood after a jaunt in space: though Cuarón’s Gravity was more successful than Gray’s Ad Astra, both were harrowing, imaginative space-set dramas that explored the dehumanization of humans out in the cosmos (and secondarily, just how scary it is to be in space).

Armageddon Time tells the story of the Graff family, who are at once both Gray’s own family and their own people. Gray’s own avatar is a young boy named Paul (Banks Repeta), nervous and stuttering, eager to fall in line with whomever is the most vocal in any room. His parents, Irving and Esther (Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway), are decent strivers, a boiler repairman and a mother working with the PTA (which, to Paul, means she is president of the school). Paul’s brother Ted (Ryan Sell) exists perhaps solely to torment him, the two of them rarely in a room together without snapping at each other. In and out of the Graff family home are grandparents Aaron and Mickey (Anthony Hopkins and Tovah Feldshuh) who come bearing welcome gifts and slightly less welcome advice. The Graffs are solidly middle-class — there is always plenty of lox on the table — though they are not exactly comfortable. There is always more they could, or want, to be.

The “more” in this case is, perhaps, “not Jewish”: it’s not so much that the Graff family would like to be another religion, pining for good old-fashioned Lutheranism or whatever, but rather they wish that they did not have to contend with the daily Jewishness of their identity. Aaron, whose mother was run out of Ukraine, is intent on clarity when he speaks about the family’s past: there was once — and perhaps always will be — an inherent threat of violence towards them. Irving and Esther, though chummy with their extended families, are relatively friendless and insular. They don’t take well, let alone ever, to outsiders.

That Paul makes a friend in a world in which he is already ostracized and isolated ought to be a matter of celebration for his family, but that Paul’s new friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb) is Black introduces a host of ugliness to be fought through. Johnny, who like Paul shares a penchant for trouble, is good-natured and amiable. He shares with Paul, he asks him questions, he encourages Paul to live with a kind of curiosity in his life that goes otherwise unseen in his Jewish home (and perhaps many others). But Johnny is also, as Paul’s parents see it, a “bad influence,” introducing him to drugs and encouraging him to skip school. When Paul asks Esther why she’s forbidden him from spending time with Johnny, she snaps back, “I think you know why.” That the Graff family’s racism is as unspoken as the constant anti-Semitism they perceive is prescient: if they don’t talk about it, they never have to acknowledge its role in their lives.

Perhaps the only person in Paul’s family who understands him is his grandfather, and Hopkins has never been better. As a grandparent, Aaron is doting and supportive. Though Irving and Esther are less than charitable towards Paul’s artistic aspirations, Aaron keeps him flush with paint supplies. In a curt, straight-forward discussion about Paul’s friendship with Johnny, Aaron advises his grandson to “be a mensch,” to speak up when the boys at his school say something racist or otherwise offensive. Armageddon Time is in conversation with the oft-repeated, oft-acknowledged “Never again” of Yitzhak Lamdan’s poetry that became something of a post-Holocaust calling card. But “Never again” did not mean never again would the Jews stand by while a holocaust of any kind occurred, nor did it symbolize or reignite any kind of intra-class or religious solidarity between Jews and other oppressed peoples. “Never again” became a short-hand for “never again would this happen to the Jews,” a mentality that has often allowed persecution to occur at the hands of Jews in order to self-preserve.

This is the stickiest part of Armageddon Time and one that few, if any, filmmakers have dared to address: the harm that Jews have perpetuated under both the guise and reality of being an oppressed people. This is different now than it was in the 1980s, the wounds of the Holocaust still open and oozing. It was during this post-WWII time period that American Jews, some of them, were at last perceived as white. It is easy to categorize the Graffs as just a white family, ignoring that some 40 years prior, they might have been turned away when their boat came to New York to escape the horrors of Eastern Europe. But the trepidation and violent reckonings they escaped haunt them and inform their actions.

This is the stickiest part of Armageddon Time and one that few, if any, filmmakers have dared to address: the harm that Jews have perpetuated under both the guise and reality of being an oppressed people.

Though Irving and Esther perceive anti-Semitism at every corner, and Paul, too, gets sassed by little blonde boys at his new school, we don’t bear witness to any explicit anti-Semitic acts, violent or otherwise. Consider the Graffs living in today’s society, with “Jews” or “the Jewish people” or “anti-Semitism” trending on Twitter once every three days to no change. It’s a filter through which to view the movie, this constant dread and fear that surrounds the Graffs and all they do. Rather than encourage their son to cultivate a friendship with a Black boy, they swiftly take action to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again, forcing him, at Aaron’s bankroll, to switch to a private school in lieu of a public one. Paul needs friends who are moneyed, white, goyish.

There has already been a healthy amount of criticism towards Gray’s handling of Paul and Johnny’s friendship, with ScreenRant calling the film “a weak attempt to educate audiences on a topic that [Gray] refuses to dive deeper into to actually say something meaningful.” For Consequence, “Gray isn’t up to the tasks of either fully digging into Johnny’s experience as a young Black man, or imbuing him with substantial depth through Paul’s eyes.” Playwright Jeremy O. Harris labeled the film as more of a “coming of race” film, rather than a coming-of-age one, a label that suggests a genre of films where the protagonist learns that those of different racial backgrounds experience the world differently. In this context, while Gray’s work stems from “good intentions,” it fails to reckon with Johnny’s humanity.

It’s true that Johnny is often little more than “the Black friend,” his interior life not cause for much concern until it’s far too late in the film. The film abandons him just as Paul once did. That Johnny is a tool through which a viewer learns about racism, however, is almost too optimistic a view on Paul’s melancholy. Gray himself has pushed back: just because Paul is a child does not mean he is the protagonist, but more a window into a time, he explained at the New York Film Festival talkback. More than that, no character in the film “comes” to any enlightenment about race. They are well-aware of it, and they are making these choices nonetheless. These characters are not all that remorseful about their own prejudices. Sad, sure, but regretful, not so much. Much of this is embodied in Jeremy Strong’s basset hound eyes, all mopey “who me?” up until Irving flies into one of his rages. This is a family who, like many other families, Jewish or otherwise, abandoned a sense of class solidarity, or any solidarity, in order to achieve a firmer place in society. Armageddon is already here, and rather than opening up their home, the Graffs close the door.