ARMAGEDDON TIME – Review by Diane Carson

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Armageddon Time presents critical values through a 1980s Jewish family

Writer/director James Gray’s Armageddon Time begins in New York City’s Public School 173, 1980, sixth grade for Paul Graff. Gray immediately immerses viewers in classroom interaction which establishes Paul’s personality and his friendship with Johnny Davis, a Black fellow student. The racism that pervades the film’s developments also rears its ugly head immediately through teacher Mr. Turkeltaub.

In Turkeltaub’s classroom, in subsequent family dinners, in school hallways, and elsewhere, director Gray exhibits a remarkable ability to define character through casual dialogue in convincing exchanges, those that are humorous and contentious. Class privilege, racist treatment, and anti-Semitism intermingle in Paul’s right and wrong choices, his behavior as believable as it is disruptive for Paul’s parents and teachers. In other words, he’s a real sixth grade boy in Reagan’s America with the Cold War looming. In a television clip, President Reagan says, “Do you ever feel that we might be the generation that sees Armageddon?” hence the title, Armageddon Time.

Anthony Hopkins is the Jewish immigrant grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz, whose family escaped persecution in the Ukraine after his relatives’ murders. They fled the Nazis first to Liverpool and then on to the Land of Dreams, as Grandpa calls it. Hopkins proves yet again what an acting treasure he is, delivering solid, commendable values through encouragement of Paul and sharing his traumas. As Paul, Banks Repeta gives a beautifully nuanced performance. Recently, child actors have shown amazing talent beyond their years. As Paul’s parents, Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong present caring but conflicted parents, trying to make good decisions for Paul but clashing with him.

In this year’s Telluride Film Festival interview, writer/director Gray describes the thoroughly autobiographical elements in the film. Hopkins/Grandpa wears Gray’s grandfather’s hat and looks uncannily like him. Jeremy Strong as Paul’s father “is exactly who my father was” and they “used the same furniture” while shooting in a house down the block from Gray’s New Jersey home. None of this would matter had the story not come alive, but it does with vivid authenticity and heart.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji composes with an eye to characters’ revealing reactions. Christopher Spelman’s music effectively communicates the various moods, and Scott Morris’ editing establishes a pleasant pace throughout. Above all, Armageddon Time delivers an important ethical drama in a compelling film.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.