James Gray’s hotly anticipated Armageddon Time promised much: a heady cast, led by Anthony Hopkins as the paterfamilias of a dysfunctional Jewish family, an analysis of the formation and inexorable rise of Donald Trump and a look at the ever-present issues of racism, religious intolerance and integration in the USA. Gray set himself a daunting task and it seems curmudgeonly to point out the director’s failings, but ultimately the film promised a lot and delivers too little.
The film opens during the gritty, dangerous days of 1980: Ronald Reagan is about to take power, disco is dying and our twelve-year-old protagonist Paul Graff (newcomer Michael Banks Repeta) is about to embark on his new school yearin a New York public school. He appears to be your typical child hero: cute, artistic, a bit of an oddball and a joker. He quickly gets into trouble with his class teacher, as does the older Black kid Johnny (Jaylin Webb) who’s repeating the year and seems determined to make all the same mistakes. The two reprobates initiate a friendship that grows throughout the film and which leads to disastrous consequences for at least one of them.
Paul is under the misapprehension that his family is rich and that his mother (Anne Hathaway) is president of the school. A few times during the film, it is mooted that Paul might need to go into the remedial class and honestly, his lack of understanding and his naivety do make you wonder if maybe the kid’s just not too bright.
At home, the family consists of a harassed mum, plumber dad (Jeremy Strong) whose quick and violent temper is oft alluded to and occasionally seen, adorable and adoring grandpa (Hopkins), bullying brother Teddy and an assortment of elderly relatives. There is so much that just doesn’t make sense about this family unit: if dad is so terrifying, why is nobody too concerned about riling him? We watch as Paul phones for takeaway because he hates his mum’s cooking and see that he actually gets away with it. Dad is viewed as a monster, but there’s a beautifully crafted shed in the garden that was built as a playroom for Paul. Mum is viewed as Paul’s advocate but in one scene is more violent than her husband. Paul is portrayed as incredibly naïve yet can navigate his way through the mean streets of New York with aplomb.
The family is openly racist, worrying about the Black and Hispanic kids attending Paul’s public school, yet then Grandpa reminds Paul to be a mensch and stick up for those children. Grandpa is the benefactor who pays for Teddy’s private school and who offers pearls of wisdom and indulgence to his beloved younger grandson yet these gifts appear to count for little. Hopkins is just miscast here. Likable and charming as he is, it is difficult to see him as the child of a Ukrainian immigrant and his British accent has to be given its own backstory.
Perhaps Gray wants to show that all families contain anomalies and all people suffer from hypocrisy and cowardice. Yet if this is his aim, it is not entirely clear. Is Paul really so likable? And if we are viewing the world through his eyes, why are there so many inconsistencies? Gray does successfully show white privilege – even that of a scrawny Jewish kid in Queens, New York – and this is rammed home. It’s a shame because there are some good performances here, particularly from Hathaway as the frazzled matriarch. There’s also a nice cameo by Jessica Chastain as Fred Trump’s Assistant US Attorney daughter Maryanne. But despite its charms, essentially there is just too much in this film that doesn’t ring true.