It was in 1980 that Ronald Reagan who said shortly before he was elected president, ‘Do you ever feel that we might be the generation that will see Armageddon?’ it’s a moment that is played out on TV in James Gray’s autobiographical film Armageddon Time an oddly prescient title when Donald Trump is seeking to be re-elected as President a sure fire sign of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse appearing that will be complete with the recommissioning of Mrs Browns Boys Christmas Special.
Set in 1980 Armageddon Time centres on a sensitive Jewish 12 year old Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) in a New York state school he is something of a dreamer with aspirations to be an artist, a view that that his father Irving (Jeremy Strong) dismisses. Paul is something of a handful for both his class teacher and his parents and his friendship with fellow classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb) hardly helps with the pair of them revelling in mischief but it’s their covertly racist teacher who doles out an inequality of punishment to the pair of them with Johnny getting the worst end of the stick. Paul’s parents are equally incapable of disciplining him, with his mother Esther (Anna Hathaway) continually warning him but never carrying out her threats whereas his father struggles and often fails to manage his trigger hair temper. It’s only really Paul’s beloved grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) that understands him encouraging his artistic tendencies and encouraging his love of painting and drawing. But its Pauls parents who determine that he should go to the private school that they’ve only been able to send his older brother and it’s a school where Fred Trump, Donald’s father, is a noted donor.
There’s something of a parallel here with Donald Trump himself growing up in similar circumstances and, like Trump, here Paul allows Johnny to take the fall for many dismeanours most notably the theft of a computer from the school that they both colluded in. Paul also escapes most of the worst punishments at the state school as his mum is prominent on the school’s PTA. It’s his grandfather who endeavours to keep Paul on the straight and narrow and become a decent citizen challenging the racism and bigotry he finds around him but Paul never rises to the moment and is subject to assimilation within the new posh school he now attends, hardly helped by the other schoolboys and their own bigotry. That social divide begins to get ever wider between him and Johnny summed up in a scene where they are separated by the chain link fence of his new private school.
Writer – director James Gray’s films often centre on father –son relationships as seen with his excellent Brad Pitt starrer Ad Astra and has drawn on his own experiences here in a wholly watchable film even if at times there are no satisfactory answers. Banks and Webb are wholly convincing as is Jeremy Strong and Anthony Hopkins and much like Anne Hathaway, for once leaving behind the accents and flamboyant costumes of previous films (The Witches, The Hustle amongst others), and their scenes are always magnetic but unfortunately infrequent. Though Armageddon Time would seem to be set up as an obvious awards contender but Paul and Johnny’s roles are underwritten and the sense that their characters are let down by the system and teachers and not encouraged in their dreams (Johnny wants to work for NASA) is disappointing especially in a country where anyone can become president whether they have a face like a toby jug fashioned by an inmate in a secure unit or a geriatric whose takes a gamble whenever he starts to read a lengthy novel.