Midway through “Armageddon Time,” Fred (John Diehl) and Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) harangue swaths of sixth-graders about sharpening their entrepreneurial ambition, their voices booming with a pristine, persuasive sheen. But what’s audacious about the sequence, and the film at large, isn’t simply the Trumps’ Reaganesque noxiousness and its self-evident implications in contemporary society. It’s the film’s smallness — its understanding of the personal as political.
The scene is shot through the eyes of filmmaker James Gray’s adolescent stand-in Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a Jewish-American student who looks downward in defiance and discomfort at the Trumps’ assertion that the students “earned” their way into private school. But Paul’s response is subtle enough to lie comfortably under the mask he wears, indicative of an instinct to assimilate. In this moment, viewers, like Paul, are left negotiating with their own passivity, constraints and freedoms. Most strikingly, Gray doesn’t spare the audience — or himself — from this reckoning.
“Armageddon Time,” in both content and form, is Gray’s most personal picture, as it’s based on the auteur’s childhood growing up in Queens in 1980. The film follows Paul, whose artistic inclinations are matched by inattentiveness and impulsivity; it is these qualities that bond him to Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black classmate who is habitually implicated as a troublemaker by their white teacher. At home, Paul is subject to the periodic anger of his repairman father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), and the lofty expectations of his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway). The only family member who sees Paul for who he is and for who he wants to be is his grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), who reminds him of his history by sharing frightening tales about how their family fled Nazi tyranny in Ukraine, which linger in Paul’s consciousness long after they’re told.
Gray isn’t too concerned about the progression of plot, even as the increasing division of Johnny and Paul proves central to the movie’s structure. The auteur is mainly concerned with crafting a portrait of a boy coming to terms with an unrelentingly hierarchical world and the paradoxical, complex aims of individuals within it. Early on, Irving and Esther scoff at an inflammatory stump speech by Ronald Reagan, but this purported progressiveness is undercut by their reactionary racism toward Johnny; they later replicate Reaganesque ideology when they send Paul to a preparatory school financed by the Trumps. At the same time, generational trauma is a collective recollection for the Graffs, and it informs their acquiescence into whiteness and weaponization of class privilege, with Graff quite literally being an anglicized surname. Irving’s economic anxiety, having not been born into wealth, informs Strong’s wavering, stand-out performance — making the few notes of tenderness in his portrayal all the more poignant.
Paul’s parents, in their upper middle class languor, cling to the American Dream — a decidedly individualistic aim that yields understanding of others irrelevant. Naturally, neither of them are able to conceptualize what Johnny’s life might feel like.
But neither can Gray’s proxy, Paul. It is Johnny’s aspiration to work for NASA, and the two boys collect NASA patches together. When Aaron gifts Paul a NASA model rocket, though, Paul doesn’t think to invite Johnny to play. While Paul’s artistic dreams are illustrated in ornate dreamscapes, Johnny’s reverie in the film is a specter — something heard but not felt.
“Armageddon Time” follows Paul’s subjectivity so closely, but little insight is given into Johnny’s life beyond a few harrowing details: His torn socks and beat-up face speak to gaps in experience. The brevity of perspective is key to Gray’s thesis. The tragedy of Paul and the Graffs is both a conscious and unconscious disregard for others in favor of one’s own pursuits. In the end, it is very American to privilege one’s own view rather than a shared consciousness. Gray knows this, and this very shame pervades the film’s final frames.
It’s a compelling thought exercise to consider a reconstruction of the film’s framework. How might “Armageddon Time” have been different had Johnny been lent more subjectivity, had the film not found itself so mired in Paul’s viewpoint? Such a picture might reflect a different America entirely — one invested in collective betterment rather than individual shame. Perhaps the seeming impossibility of this imbues the film’s final frames with an indelible regret, one even more tragic because this vision of America had never been foundational to begin with.