James Gray’s film fails at connecting viewers to its protagonist
James Gray has focused his films on characters with a deep internal turmoil. He’s frequently set these characters against colorful backdrops, such as 1920s New York in The Immigrant (2013), or the Amazon jungle in The Lost City of Z (2016), even in space with his last film Ad Astra (2019). However, his latest takes away these bells and whistles and places viewers within the deeply personal and intimate setting of a child in school.
Armageddon Time (2022) is the story of Paul (Banks Repeta), a young boy who is starting 6th grade in his local public school in 1980 Queens, New York. Paul is something of a troublemaker and he bonds with the other mischievous kid in his class, Johnny (Jaylin Webb). Together they become fast friends, but their troublemaking clashes against an increasingly strict adult authority. Paul faces the rules of his parents (Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong), and only finds solace in his loving and gentle grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins).
Gray brings his trademark patience and attention to ambience and immersion. Certainly, with Armageddon Time, Gray is able to transport viewers to the feeling of being a child again, the anxieties and exhilarations that zoomed about in daily life. We’re able to see the fluidity and rationale to Paul’s absentmindedness when adults begin to talk about “boring” stuff and find a certain logic to his troublemaking. Gray shines in this immersion with a particular contrast of scenes, namely those featuring the anger of Paul’s father, which has viewers trembling when Paul locks himself in a bathroom, and the liberating and loving ones of with Paul’s grandfather. It is this ability to focus on crafting a space for viewers to truly submerge themselves into the film’s world that Gray shines as a director.
Armageddon Time finds a harder time convincing viewers to cheer for our protagonist. Paul is rather obnoxious, he comes from a privileged family and yet tells his mother her food is disgusting to her face during a family dinner, disrupts his class and his patient professor, smokes in the bathroom stalls, steals school computers, runs away during a school trip, and more. This behavior could be made intriguing, if Paul were a charming character, and yet he’s only able to come across as a spoiled brat. This results in viewers failing to truly care for Paul as a protagonist, and thus for Armageddon Time to slow its rhythm to a crawl. The only real interest in Paul’s fate is whether he’ll get the good scolding he deserves (albeit not the child abuse he ends up suffering).
There is also a random inclusion of Trump family members in Armageddon Time (yes, those Trumps). Gray seems to want to make a point of cementing who snobbish elitists are in the film with those scenes, but the election of such a divisive and problematic family ruptures through the more delicate crafting of the film and comes across as jarring.
The main problem with Armageddon Time, however, regards race. Paul’s troublemaking friend in school, Johnny, is black. The film depicts examples of the microaggressions and subtle racism that Johnny suffers, and how Paul is seeing the “real world” through his observation of these. Yet, you can’t shake off the fact that Johnny is being used as tool for white Paul’s personal growth. This would be frustrating alone, but given the fate of Johnny in the end of the film, where he is used and thrown away for the sake of narrative, it turns problematic. Throughout Armageddon Time, I couldn’t help wondering why I was watching the rather conventional and boring life of Paul and not that of Johnny, as a black kid in a majority white school, navigating the complicated process of school racial integration. Instead, we get an exploitative use of a scantily written black character whose only use is to be a motivation and lesson for the white protagonist.
Armageddon Time places a lot of its dramatic and narrative weight on its child actors. Both Repeta and Webb are talented, but Gray asks too much of them. They must play a duality between situations of authority and public and when they’re free to be themselves. This is too complex a layering to place at the feet of adult actors let alone children. As such, the lack of understanding from the lead performances is noticeable. The adult supporting cast was stronger, with Strong and Hathaway convincing as Paul’s parents. However, Hopkins is the real heart and gem of Armageddon Time. The British thespian delivers such a sweet and nuanced performance, littered with a hidden past trauma and a weight of history on his shoulders that you truly begin to forget you’re watching the renown Hopkins, and rather grandpa Aaron.
In the end, Armageddon Time is a brilliantly directed film by Gray, who showcases his adeptness with viewer immersion. The core narrative is hurt, however, by the crafting of its protagonist and his narrative arc. This along with an overreliance on child actors to carry complex roles, drags the better aspects of Armageddon Time. Not even Anthony Hopkins at his best, can salvage the potential the film had.