James Gray's previous work, ' Ad Astra ', was a searing, emotionally charged sci-fi epic inspired by ' Apocalypse Now '. It took the whole "distant heroic father" trope and made it literal - Tommy Lee Jones ' trailblazing astronaut was on the other side of the solar system, with Brad Pitt 's character trekking across it to find him. In 'Armageddon Time', you can see where and how Gray was able to write such a character. Jeremy Strong's father character is abusive, full of rage and then, in another scene, calm and tender. That dichotomy shouldn't work, but it's very real. Likewise, Anne Hathaway's mother character is the same - literally throttling her son in one scene, yet lovingly hugging him in another.
'Armaggedon Time' is at its best when it zeroes in on the family dynamics and the idea of a generational struggle for acceptance in American life. Anthony Hopkins ' grandfather character calmly recites their family history to the child, recounting the horrors of Jewish pogroms in Ukraine, but then also underlining how Jewish people have had to pass in the US. Even their surname - Graff - is passable and not overtly Jewish like that of Anthony Hopkins' character or Hathaway's maiden name. Class awareness is another aspect that's handled with authenticity, with the constant emphasis on how being an artist isn't going to pay the bills and how dependable careers are more suited.
Frustratingly, much of the movie is made up of the friendship between Paul - the stand-in for director-writer James Gray - and Johnny, a lone black student in his public school. Johnny is repeatedly targeted by their teacher, Paul is either ignored or coddled by him. Later, when they're caught by police trying to steal computer equipment to fund a fairytale journey to Disneyworld in Florida, Paul is let off while Johnny faces consequences. While 'Armageddon Time' is trying to show racism and generational struggle from the viewpoint of a typical Jewish family in New York, it's labouring with guilt doesn't provide any real depth to the character of Johnny. We only catch glimpses of his own life, and he's only ever defined clearly when he's being subjected to injustices and racism. We never see him outside of these moments, at least not really.
'Armageddon Time' has moments of real emotional clarity, and the performances from the cast are all deeply felt and realised, particularly from newcomer Banks Repeta. Yet, it falls down repeatedly as it unconvincingly tries to rope in a story about racial injustice but never explores it beyond simple observations painted in broad strokes. In other aspects of the story, however, 'Armageddon Time' has a precision unlike any other film covering this time period or this kind of story. Ultimately, 'Armageddon Time' winds up never connecting the two and the results are muddled and often contradictory.
It's a shame, because this kind of intimate, deeply felt story of childhood lost and found doesn't come around that often in cinemas.