When: Friday, Oct. 28
Where: In select theaters
Writer/director James Gray is one of cinema’s finest humanists. Gray often renders emotion as big as the canvas he uses to tell his stories, whether it’s the expansive emptiness of space in Ad Astra or crowded swaths of the jungle in The Lost City of Z. His latest, Armageddon Time, which releases in New York and Los Angeles today, comes down to Earth—specifically to Queens, New York, in the fall of 1980—for a decidedly small and memoiristic tale that captures the thematic qualities of his previous efforts.
Time details the story of Paul Graff (a winsome Bank Repeta) and his family—notably his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway, who, while great, is decidedly not Jewish), plumber father Iriving (Jeremy Strong, electric as always), and grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins)—as he enters a critical period of his life. On the first day of sixth grade, Paul hits it off with a classmate, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), after the two get into trouble during class. Their shared rebellious nature grows out of their mutual disdain for their racist teacher and for their shared passions for art—Paul for drawing and Johnny for music—not taught in school. After the pair land in serious hot water, Paul, much like the Saturn V spaceship he loves, is rocketed out of public school and into a pricey private school, thanks to financial help from his grandfather, who escaped Jewish persecution in Europe and immigrated to America for a shot a better life.
Time doesn’t shy away from the racial, class, and moral complications of the time while actively trying to avoid falling into the pitfalls that often arrive with these kinds of stories. However, the film doesn’t land its big conclusion to this particular aspect, even though Gray approaches it in decidedly good faith. It’s a bit of a letdown as such, considering the strengths of the other portions. Between this and The Father, Hopkins is having quite a late-career resurgence; he’s absolutely fantastic and compelling here as Aaron, a man who realizes the tension between trying to cultivate a better life for his family at the expense of others and how hard it is to rage against the machine which establishes these conditions in the first place.
Ultimately, Armageddon Time doesn’t land its big swing as convincingly as I’d like, but there’s still quite a compelling whole surrounding this thorny and complex (no pun intended) memory tale, thanks to incredible performances and compelling familial drama. —William Goodman