Armageddon Time is one of James Gray’s most beautifully observed films. On the face of it, or from a distance, it might also seem like one of his most conventional films – a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Queens in 1980, on the cusp of Ronald Reagan being elected to the presidency. Yet Armageddon Time subtly deforms the common tropes of the coming-of-age genre as it proceeds, building towards an open-ended final scene that suggests a core component of Gray’s sensibility remains unresolved. The screenplay revolves around Paul Graff, Gray’s surrogate, played by Banks Repeta, and his relationship with four discrete people, or groups of people. First, we have his relationship with his second-generation Jewish family – his mother Esther, played by Anne Hathaway, his father Irving, played by Jeremy Strong, and his brother Ted, played by Ryan Sell. Then, we have his relationship with his first-generation grandparents – his grandfather Aaron, played by Anthony Hopkins, and his grandmother Mickey, played by Tovah Feldshuh. Third, Paul’s best friend is Johnny Davis, an African-American boy he meets at his local public school, played by Jaylin Webb. Finally, when Paul’s parents shift him to a private school, he meets a new group of upper-class acquaintances, who introduce him to the worldview and attitudes of the elite.
The early scenes of Armageddon Time build a beautiful vision of the ebbs and flows of Paul’s extended family, which also includes a host of aunts, uncles and cousins who remain in the middle distance. During the first act, the Graffs exude a quasi-comic rapport, even or especially when crisis seems about to eventuate, partly because they all have a somewhat academic bent, and are intellectually resilient enough to accommodate most conflicts. Esther strongly believes in the power of education, Irving is an engineer and an auto-didact, and Aaron was a scholar before he was forced to leave Europe during the Holocaust. Virtually every argument segues into laughter at the silliness of it all, allowing the family to subsist on a cruisey collective rhythm that continues when they spill out of their house, most memorably when Esther spontaneously suggests that they all go for a drive through a local rich neighborhood. Small wrinkles occur in this family fabric, as when Paul insists on ordering Chinese take-out instead of having a traditional meal, or when he opts to play with his friend Johnny instead of spending time with the family. These moments are often framed in terms of racial difference, the point where Jewish people come up against other minorities, but that sympathy breeds a kind of picaresque inclusion that renders the Graffs even more expansive.
So far, this is a beautifully etched, if largely conventional, coming-of-age narrative. Gray continues this mastery of convention through the character of Aaron, Paul’s grandfather. Anthony Hopkins has played so many lovable purveyors of wisdom by now that it would seem almost impossible to reinvent the role afresh for him, and yet that’s exactly what Gray does here. By including Aaron sparingly, at an awry distance from the rest of the family, and associating him with some surprising plot points, such as the decision to send Paul to private school, Gray turns him into a gorgeously embroidered character, rather than the Hopkins pastiche he could so easily have become. Aaron expands Paul’s sense of the past, through stories of Ellis Island and his earliest days in New York, as well as explicit injunctions that “you should never, ever forget the past” and to “take good care of yourself – and remember your past.” Through Aaron, Paul senses the passage of the twentieth-century behind him, as well as the emergence of a new discriminatory world order with Reagan’s election on the horizon.
Having established these two bedrocks of the coming-of-age genre, Gray starts to move in a more characteristically elliptical direction. As the film settles into its second act, Paul’s world congeals around two relationships in particular – with Aaron, his grandfather, and with Johnny, his best friend. These are the two people Paul is closest to, and yet their experience is so radically different to his own that he can only sense it indirectly, hovering around the fringes of his consciousness and experience. In the third act, after Aaron dies, and Johnny is kicked out of school, Paul reverts to the fringes of his own life in order to remain close to them. Most of this act takes place at night, as Paul lies in bed, listening to his parents argue, while relying on remembered figments of his grandfather’s voice, or else sneaking out to the backyard, where Johnny lives for a time in the freezing club house that Irving built for Paul. Noises emerge just below the threshold of clear audibility, while the film’s palette of browns and greys sinks into a deeper darkness that decentres and disorients Paul’s sense of himself.
Conversely, Gray moves away from any conventional sense of self-realisation, or artistic realisation. For Paul, growth is supposed to come with his transition to private school, partly because Aaron endorsed this move, hoping it would provide him with educational opportunities that he himself didn’t have. Yet Paul encounters anti-semitism in the wild for the first time with his first encounter at this new school – a conversation with a creepy old man who turns out to be Fred Trump, played by John Diehl, who is there to watch an address from Maryanne Trump, played by Jessica Chastain, an alumnus of the school. Before Maryanne Trump addresses the cohort on the importance of hard work, the principal affirms that “the Trump family is our family,” while encouraging the student body to chant “Reagan, Reagan, Reagan” at the mention of the upcoming election. The aspirational rhetoric of the kunstleroman is thus absorbed into the aspirational lineage of the Reagan-Trump presidential arc, deflating the rhetoric of personal growth and acquisition typical of coming-of-age films.
Indeed, at the very moment that Paul is coming into his own as an artist, he finds himself at odds with the aspirational 80s, which may explain the self-consciously minor quality of Gray’s body of work ever since. This distaste for aspiration is enhanced by the motifs of space travel that percolate their way across the film. Just as Paul longs to be an artist, Johnny longs to be an astronaut. Likewise, Paul has a revelatory moment standing in front of a Wassily Kandinsky painting, whose fiery trajectories become a figure for Johnny’s desire to conquer the cosmos as well. The fixation on the space race also contours Paul’s relationship with Aaron, who buys him a toy rocket for his birthday, and helps him launch it on what turns out to be their last ever day out, since he is hospitalised and dies from bone cancer in the next couple of weeks.
As the film proceeds, the space race, and the broader prospect of futuristic technology, becomes one of the main differentiators between Paul and Johnny’s prospects. Johnny, after all, doesn’t have parents (let alone grandparents) with the resources to buy him a toy rocket. In perhaps the central scene of the film, Paul and Johnny are riding the subway, and discussing Johnny’s aspirations to work at NASA, when a group of older African American youths overhear the conversation, and point out peremptorily to Johnny that NASA doesn’t have any room for black astronauts. This marks the start of a more melancholy and morbid mood for Johnny, who can only maintain his relationship with Paul through the shared fantasy that the two of them can run away to Florida, and get jobs at the new EPCOT Centre. Paul buys into this fantasy by suggesting they steal an expensive computer from his private school to fund the whole operation. In doing so, he attempts to sequester futuristic technology back from the profound race and class divide that it has exposed between his and Johnny’s upbringings.
However, this plan ends in precisely the opposite way. Having taken on the burden of organising the crime, Paul believes that it will be relatively risk-free for Johnny to pawn the computer for money. Instead, the shop owner calls the police, Johnny gets arrested, and Paul confesses to the crime, only for Irving to step in, broker a deal with the officer, and get his son off the hook. All the comfortingly cruisey family dynamic now comes to an abrupt halt, as Irving and Paul sit in the car outside, alienated and dissonant, and Irving admits to Paul that while it’s not fair that Johnny will take the fall, he nevertheless has to make the most of his good luck: “You make the most of your break and you do not look back.” Paul is thus irreducibly compromised at this moment of catharsis, and unable to make the confession he wants, as the unease of this scene segues into Reagan winning, and providing the USA with similarly artificial sense of closure. In the final scene, Fred Trump addresses the school cohort, reiterating Irving’s aspirational catharsis, but in considerably grander terms, by telling the students that “You’re ready to face the world – you are the elite. I couldn’t have more hope than I do at this moment in our future.” Unable to confess, and unable to fix (or even articulate) the despair he feels, Paul walks out of the school, and wanders down the street. This final sequence is bereft even of the catharsis of a theatrical walk-out, instead jettisoning him, and the film, in a minor-key wandering that marks the inception of Gray’s auteurist voice.
In the end, then, Armageddon Time takes the myth of auteur origins and pairs it with a time in Gray’s life when the aspirational rhetoric of auteurism was irreducibly tainted – by the emergence of Reaganism, by the lessons of his grandfather, and by his friendship with Johnny, who we never see again. During the early scenes, Paul indulges in flights of fancy in which he imagines being lauded as a famous artist, but these twee interludes quickly fade away, leaving the more more muted and inchoate restlessness that has characterised Gray’s cinema ever since. It is, in effect, both the confession he could never make, and yet another deflection of that confession – a love letter to Johnny and Aaron as figures he could only appreciate in retrospect. For all the power of the non-ending, the scene that lingered with me was the final scene between Paul and Aaron, when they launch the rocket for the first time. This takes place against the wintry desuetude of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the site of the 1964 World’s Fair, and a recurring skyline and sightline. As Paul’s rocket splutters and dies against this testament to futures past, the film’s aspiration towards an artistic future, its auteurist self-realisation, involutes as well, deforming into a plangent and self-frustrating melancholy.