As the B-side to “London Calling,” the Clash’s 1979 cover of Jamaican singer Willie Williams’s “Armagideon Time” is a crucial footnote to pop history: a righteous, opportunistic fusion of punk snarl and reggae rhythm aimed squarely between the eyes of the powers that be. In it, Joe Strummer doubles down on the apocalyptic anxieties of “London Calling,” with its intimations of “nuclear era” and a metropolis tumbling into the Thames, and advocates for guerilla class warfare. “Remember to kick it over,” he sings, his appetite for destruction justified by the track’s weary, wary refrain: “A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight.”
The cruel elusiveness of justice—legal, poetic, or otherwise—is the subject of James Gray’s new drama, Armageddon Time, which returns the filmmaker to the cloistered, personal mode of his early work after forays into big-budget dream project territory (2019’s explicitly Kubrickian Ad Astra, which was inevitably subject to studio meddling). The film takes place in the fall of 1980, in the glory days of the Clash and on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s election: the dawning of Morning in America, sunny skies with a warning of potential mushroom clouds. For high schooler Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), the then-governor of California is just another politician for his liberal Jewish parents to scoff at around the television; Chicken Littles clucking that the sky is falling. But the anxiety around his campaign is still palpable. And when you’re a teenager, everything feels like it’s the end of the world as you know it.
The trick of beefing up a coming-of-age story by setting it against some kind of familiar historical hinge point is an old one (one recent example: Licorice Pizza’s gas shortage subplot). The key question of Gray’s semi-roman à clef, the latest of the director’s real-life Queens Boulevard equivalents, is not whether it’s accomplished, but whether it fills out such a grandiose conceit. What, if anything, do the adventures of a gifted but wayward wannabe artist have to do with a society’s encroaching rightward tilt? Does Gray earnestly conflating the ethical struggles of his youthful surrogate with the state of the nation suggest humility, hubris, or something even more outrageously overwrought? Or, thorniest of all, considering Armageddon Time’s tragic themes of racial profiling and institutional favoritism and its maker’s status as a brand-name auteur free to tackle whatever material he wants on big studio budgets: What is the best way for a winner to write his own history?
The main relationship at the heart of Armageddon Time is between two preadolescent boys: Paul, who lives comfortably with his family in a detached house in Queens, and his African American classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb), whose parents are no longer in the picture. At school, the two share a sacred bond as troublemakers; soon after Paul has been disciplined for passing around a sketch of their hateful homeroom teacher (Andrew Polk), Johnny ups the ante with an even wilder display requiring even more severe discipline. Each time one messes up, the other starts running interference. The mutual respect that develops between two kids working through their respective anti-establishment impulses is real, but their solidarity is riddled with invisible fissures. When Johnny says he can’t afford to go on a class trip to the Guggenheim, Paul—who’s excited to sample some modern art—offers to front him the money because, as he explains, his family is rich, and his mom runs the school to boot.
Esther Graff (Anne Hathaway) doesn’t run the school. But she is angling for a spot at the head of the PTA, a campaign that speaks to some sublimated second-wave feminism at odds with her homemaker persona. Nor are his parents rich: It’s more accurate to say that Esther’s father, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), whose family emigrated from Ukraine to Liverpool before arriving in the U.S. in the ’60s, is extremely rich, and only selectively stingy about it. It’s implied that Aaron and his wife Mickey (Tovah Feldshuh) have used their wealth to prop up Paul’s electrician father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), during fallow periods, as well as to send their elder grandson Ted (Ryan Sell) to a high-end private school—a status he lords over his sibling at every opportunity.
Paul’s confusion about the precise nature of his privilege is sketched excellently by Gray, who excelled, even in his early, crime-themed films, in conveying ethnic and economic details. The dimly lit mealtime sequences in The Yards and We Own the Night carry some of the lived-in energy of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Paul’s bratty habit of ordering takeout dumplings in the middle of Shabbat dinner works hilariously as shorthand for his assimilation, as does Irving’s sneaky post-meal claim on the leftovers. One night, after taking in a screening of Goldie Hawn’s star vehicle Private Benjamin—and having a spirited family debate outside the theater about the nomenclature of the class-based Jewish slur “Jap,” which Aaron, for all his expertise on antisemitism, has never heard before—the Graffs drive through neighborhoods more prosperous than their own, making self-deprecating (and ultimately disingenuous) jokes about the high cost of living, and about their inability to keep up with the proverbial Joneses.
Gray, who is perhaps the most conscientious dramatist in contemporary American cinema, likes to build movies around broad, tragic dichotomies. In We Own the Night, it was brothers working on both sides of the thin blue line; in The Immigrant, it was a woman trapped between the Old World and the New World. Here, he’s setting up the difference between Paul, who’s lazy and distracted mainly because he knows (however unconsciously) that he’s got ample resources to fall back on, and Johnny, who defiantly prods his teacher’s racism because he has absolutely nothing to lose. The first act climaxes with an object lesson in inequality, which sees the boys busted for smoking weed in the boys’ room—a minor transgression with major consequences, although we’re only privy to the fallout on Paul’s end. The irony is thick: After absorbing a torrent of verbal and physical abuse from his parents in brutal, matter-of-fact scenes, Paul’s grand punishment is to be sent—on his grandfather’s dime—to his brother’s private school. It’s a case study in failing upward.
It’s also a comeuppance that could have easily been a plot point in some early ’80s big-goof-on-campus comedy with a snobs-versus-slobs story line. But Gray, who’s exponentially funnier in conversation about his movies than in his movies, plays it instead for ominous allegory. Showing up on his first day, Paul is shepherded to assembly by one of his new school’s pockmarked, sour-faced old patrons, who as it turns out is none other than Fred Trump (John Diehl); the keynote speaker is the Donald’s older sister Marryane (Jessica Chastain), who urges the trust-fund sucklings in the audience to go out and overachieve even beyond their station—a speech encoded with its fair share of xenophobic dog-whistling. In attempting to protect their son from the imagined menace of an integrated public school, the Graffs have abandoned him to the proto-fascistic ghouls, and most damningly of all, they’re determined to see him fit in at any cost. The only exception is Aaron, who remains thoughtful and attentive about his grandson’s experiences (even if it was his generosity that facilitated the switch in the first place).
There’s a beautifully written and acted sequence in which Paul meets his grandfather in the park to launch a model rocket and the old man delivers a tender, heartfelt speech about the importance of tolerance and standing up against bullies. Here, Hopkins flashes his master technique so winningly that the bluntness of the address—both from Aaron to Paul and from filmmaker to audience—is obviated; we’re drawn into the urgency of an aging patriarch who’s trying to reach across a multigenerational divide while he still can. In a movie by a less intelligent filmmaker, it’d be either way more obvious that Paul gets the message or way more obvious that he doesn’t. Instead, Gray pulls back, away from the heart-to-heart and to a touchingly scaled image of ecstatic, boys-at-play triumph that’s too vivid to be scripted—it has the lingering, fine-grained specificity of a long-held memory.
The toy rocket that Aaron and Paul send up is a wonderfully polyvalent symbol of American ingenuity and technological power: It reaches back toward the glory days of Neil Armstrong and forward toward Reagan’s quasi-apocalyptic Star Wars initiative (and, in an auteurist sense, toward Gray’s deep-space adventure Ad Astra). When Gray is at his best—as in The Yards, We Own the Night, and Two Lovers, which stand up among the best American dramas of the 21st century—it’s because he’s so good at this kind of compression. He finds a way to filter his classical, cause-and-effect storytelling through images and staging that reveal hidden layers and depths. It’s only in retrospect that the films reveal themselves as fables about the inescapability of fate: The ending of We Own the Night, which finds black sheep Joaquin Phoenix coaxed back into his NYPD-dynasty-family’s fold, is as bleak and devastating as melodrama gets, the erosion of a man’s soul cinched by a sincere yet self-negating pledge of brotherly love.
But there’s also such a thing as too much architecture, and, possibly because he’s so close to the material, Armageddon Time can feel overworked. By the time Hopkins departs the narrative (in another scene that burrows through cliché into something like real, terrible experience), it starts to buckle beneath the heavy weight of its own deterministic design.
The smaller flaws here have to do with casting: Hathaway and Strong are good actors who don’t scan immediately as Jewish American, and end up stretching a bit in the direction of caricature (the same way Michelle Williams does in Steven Spielberg’s similarly autobiographical The Fabelmans). The larger problem is that for how clearly Gray sees Paul—and how sensitively he directs Repeta in a delicate, alert performance—he can’t get much of a read on Johnny, and thus falls back on well-intentioned but grating clichés. The kid loves Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang; he dotes on his dying grandmother; he’s ducking child services in between after-hours visits to Paul’s house. The tension between the Graff family’s ostensibly progressive attitudes and their barely closeted disdain for African Americans—or, specifically, for the Black kid they fear is dragging their son into drug use—is undermined by the film’s own lack of imagination in this area. While a generous reading might say that Johnny’s vagueness is a byproduct of Paul’s own myopia—the way he’s been conditioned to see everybody else as a supporting player in his narrative—that’s a bit too convenient. Rather, Johnny is what he seems to be: a plot device, and nothing more. For all the skillful engineering Gray does in bringing the boys together again for another, even more dangerous act of petty criminal ingenuity, the ending and its message are visible from a mile away.
Predictability isn’t inherently a bad thing, and the moment of reckoning that tests whether Paul has actually learned his grandfather’s lessons is powerfully conceived; nobody does close-up, dawning, Dostoevskyian guilt like Gray, whose movies almost always build to scenes of characters paralyzed in mute helplessness against events beyond their control. But the malevolent, systemic unfairness of the final scenes doesn’t resonate the way it’s supposed to. The events don’t tear your guts out. That Paul gets off easier than he should because—to paraphrase Strong’s for-your-consideration final monologue—that’s just the way the world works is, in the end, less an observation of some cosmic imbalance than a sideways justification for the movie’s existence. It’s only by losing his innocence that Paul will, it’s implied, gain the clarity to live up to his ambitions as an artist; the final shots suggest that Paul will eventually break faith with all of the flawed institutions that birthed him and walk his own path toward a nobler kind of self-actualization. The troubling, ambivalently nostalgic Armageddon Time is the upshot of those aspirations—a movie that evokes and soothes its own pristinely guilty conscience.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.