Armageddon Time (Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Anthony Hopkins) – Hollywood is full of big egos. Over the years, many writer/directors have decided that the world deserves to hear their own stories either because they are such interesting people or because they are convinced that they owe it to themselves and/or their families. If they have enough clout, some studio will produce the film.
Sometimes, those movies work. For example, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast was a lovely story and Oscar nominee. Coming this month is The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical tale of his own childhood in Arizona.
Out now is Armageddon Time, James Gray’s autobiographical story of his early youth. Now, we all know who Steven Spielberg is, a superstar in the world of cinema. The same is true of Branagh, the only person to be nominated in seven Oscar categories. So, who is James Gray? He directed Ad Astra, a box office bomb starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, and Donald Sutherland. My favorite movie of his was We Own the Night with Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, and Eva Mendes, a film that barely brought in more money than it cost.
What to make of Armageddon Time? Set in Queens in 1980 as Ronald Reagan is about to win the Presidency, Armageddon Time is the story of Paul Graff, a respectful sixth grader with a rebellious streak and a desire to be an artist. His Jewish family is stereotypical. Mom (Anne Hathaway) is a homemaker who is president of the PTA and wants to run for school board. Dad (Jeremy Strong of Succession) is a dominant, perhaps abusive, personality with an inferiority complex. Grandpa (Anthony Hopkins) is the only one who really connects with Paul, encouraging his ambition even as he, like the parents, want Paul to point for a more conventional future.
Armageddon Time is a family saga, a coming-of-age story, a commentary on an era when the world seemed on the brink, and a cautionary tale about wealth, bigotry, and conformity. Frankly, Gray tries to do too much!
A story about Paul and his best friend, a streetwise black kid, is the most intriguing story. The family dynamic, a seemingly loveless marriage with a repressed mother trying to assert herself and a working-class father who can be cruel and loving at the same time, isn’t rich enough. The grandfather/grandson relationship is heartening and palpable, but it needed more depth and screen time.
There is even a snippet featuring Fred Trump as a private school’s benefactor and his, daughter, Marianne (Jessica Chastain), as the guest speaker at a school assembly. Why do we need this? It diverts the audience without moving the film forward.
The quick summary is that Armageddon Time is a meandering period piece without a meaningful moral center. The acting, featuring tested stars Hathaway, Strong and Hopkins, is earnest but contained. The young actors, Banks Repeta as Paul and Jaylin Webb as his friend, Johnny, absorb a lot of screen time without being particularly captivating. I kept wanting more from them.
I suppose that Gray wants us to know that he turned out well, became an artist, and has had a successful career. Good for him. Unfortunately, his story isn’t all that compelling and will likely not attract a wide audience at the box office. I also doubt that it will get much Oscar consideration either except perhaps for supporting actor for Sir Anthony Hopkins.
And finally, what’s with the title? If this is the end of the world, there is only one reference to it – when Hathaway’s character comments that Reagan’s election will mean nuclear war. Maybe I just don’t get it. Armageddon Time sounds like it will be a political thriller with Matt Damon racing to stop Putin from pushing the button, not some kid lamenting about how black kids get blamed for everything.