In the Age of Armageddon, Privilege and Prejudice Create Complex Problems

In the Age of Armageddon, Privilege and Prejudice Create Complex Problems

(left to right) Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong in James Gray's Armageddon Time.

(left to right) Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong in James Gray’s armageddon time.
Photo: Focus characteristics

A while ago in armageddon time where Jeremy Strong is the quintessential adorable goofy dad, singing a wake-up song and going to school in a kitchen utensil while performing horrific dance moves. Later, he beats the snot out of his terrified youngest son, who curls up in a tub screaming “not yet”. Still later, you see him beg and plead with fate to let his child take a break and get out of a dangerous situation unscathed. It’s this collection (and more) of harrowing contradictions that gives James Gray’s memoir film such depth, and why it should be cherished. And Strong isn’t even the main character.

Front and center is young Banks Repeta’s Paul Graff, a 12-year-old proxy for Gray in a crucial, mostly true incident from his childhood. He comes from a working-class Jewish family in Queens, and his refugee grandparents (Anthony Hopkins and Tovah Feldshuh) are still holding their breath 35 years after the end of World War II. Paul and his older brother are an assimilationist’s dream: if they work hard and play by the rules, they’ll get “a seat at the table” that previous generations never had.

But Paul is at an age where life is just a big joke. He’s rude to his parents at the dinner table because he knows he can get away with it. (His mother, played by Anne Hathaway, has a hard time hiding her smile when he acts out; she loves him too much.) Soon, however, he starts getting into trouble at school. He hangs out with a black boy named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), which triggers a complex series of reactions from his family. Paul will go to a private school.

It might not sound like a big cinematic conflict that an observer might care about, but Gray’s strict eye for detail somehow makes it. (It also brings additional complications.) This is a family that is well aware of the inconvenience caused by prejudice. They are not right wing people. (“What an asshole!” dad spits on TV when presidential candidate Ronald Reagan sucks in religious conservatives.) But the copper ring for this family is social and financial security, and the repeated acceptance that “life is not is not fair” is what ultimately dictates their principles. They will essentially give up fighting for social equality to get what they want. Paul will go to snobby school (and have a strange encounter with the Trump family), then get a well-paying job. If you want it, it’s not a dream.

ARMAGEDDON TIME – Official Trailer – In select theaters October 28

It sounds heavy, but know that the film is also an energetic look at growing up, very much in the tradition of François Truffaut. There are trips to the arcade, discussions in a backyard clubhouse, and a touching intergenerational outing to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to launch a mini-rocket. (It must be said that Anthony Hopkins, 84, becomes in a way better over the years.)

There is also a timeliness to one of the film’s central themes, which is the position of American Jews on the spectrum of harmful victimization. (Five minutes on Twitter any day will confirm that.) What this film shows is something obvious to many, but not all: anti-Semitism is real and devastating, and most Jews in America have also white privilege. It’s not one or the other. Those who don’t understand this just have to watch this movie. What is important, of course, is to learn from it, to recognize microaggressions when they occur and to do something about it.

armageddon time, however, is too cool for a special after-school vibe. He asks more questions than he answers and doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It’s also a great movie for anyone who grew up in the New York area in 1980, with the right needle drops and art direction. It is James Gray’s eighth feature film and, ultimately, the simplest. It may also be his best.

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