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James Gray looks back on his youth in this spirited comedy drama, mining the chaos and comfort of family life in Reagan’s America.
It was the best of times. It was the craziest of times. New York emerged from a broken 1970s with a sense of hope and renewal. But not everyone was happy. For The Graffs, a liberal Jewish family living in Queens, Reagan’s arrival is a disaster. Not that 11-year-old Paul Graff’s (Banks Repeta) notices. He’s good friends with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), the only Black kid in his class. They experience minor scrapes as they hold a small rebellion against school rules, often finding themselves in conflict with Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), their teacher. But whereas Paul escapes mostly unscathed, Johnny receives the full pelt of Mr. Turkeltaub’s prejudices. This inequality doesn’t end at the school gates, but it has little effect on their friendship at this stage of their lives, and as they run amok in New York.
Armageddon Time is a stark contrast to Gray’s previous film, the sci-fi epic Ad Astra. However, it’s also a world away from his earlier New York films, Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers. If those films were moody dramas, Gray’s latest revels in Paul’s small adventures, finding his way in the world, and in the warm environment of a mostly happy family life. Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong impress as Paul’s parents. Succession’s Strong, in particular, conveys the complexity of his character, a man whose seemingly benign behaviour occasionally lapses into uncontrollable rages. Then there’s Paul’s grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust, played with boundless charm by Anthony Hopkins. Gray creates an intimate environment that draws us into Paul’s world. At the same time, his depiction of this domestic environment allows Gray to highlight the contrast between Paul and Johnny’s lives, a chasm that would only grow wider as the decade progressed.