There are any number of memorable images from James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” a singularly introspective space adventure in which Brad Pitt journeys to the outer limits of our solar system just to hear Daddy Lee Jones tell him that he doesn’t care, but none have stayed with me quite like the shot of Pitt’s astronaut landing on the Moon — the very first stop on his interstellar voyage into the heart of darkness. Once the ultimate symbol of humanity’s possibility and the nearest proof of our species’ infinite reach, the Moon has since been reduced to a low-gravity version of Newark Airport, complete with American fast food restaurants and the general vibe of an upscale New Jersey outlet mall. The point is clear even before Pitt’s character double-underlines it: There is nothing truly new for man to discover among the vast ocean of stars, because we take ourselves with us wherever we go. The only real terra incognita in the universe is the human soul.
That moment is something of a skeleton key for Gray’s movies, most of which are a bit more earthbound, but all of which — from Coppola-inspired family tales like “The Immigrant” to Coppola-inspired Campbellian epics like “The Lost City of Z” — trace some kind of intimately circular journey into the unknown and right back out again. The same can be said of his muted but magnificent new “Armageddon Time,” which distills the director’s mythic sweep into an ultra-autobiographical coming-of-age movie that could easily have become the Jewish-American “Belfast” if not for its Talmudic moral streak and fierce aversion to sentimentality.
Only James Gray would saddle a modest self-portrait about his memories of sixth grade with a title that makes it sound more like “Apocalypse Now” than any other film ever has (a reference to candidate Reagan’s nuclear hawkishness, “Armageddon Time” borrows its name from a 1979 Willie Williams reggae jam famously covered by The Clash). Likewise, only James Gray would render that self-portrait into such a powerful story of post-war assimilation that a family outing to see “Private Benjamin” might resonate with the same cosmic scale as a trip to Neptune.
Pivoting away from the biggest production of his career with a melancholy return to the kind of small-scale New York stories (à la “The Yards” and “Little Odessa”) that first put him on the map, Gray revisits his childhood years and all of their related ghosts with a burnished memoir that hears echoes of 19th European pogroms reverberating through the Trump family — 100 years later and some 4,000 miles away — in much the same way as “Ad Astra” found an Applebee’s on the Moon.
On its surface, “Armageddon Time” is the unsparingly well-remembered story of a pre-pubescent Jewish boy named Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), the slightly older Black kid he meets on the first day of school in September 1980 (Jaylin Webb plays second-time sixth-grader Johnny Davis), and the semi-guileless friendship these two space cadets form on the strength of their mutual interests: rocket ships and fucking with their racist asshole of a homeroom teacher. It’s a story about the invisible fault lines of inequality, the moral compromises demanded by the American Dream, and the very practical ways in which remembering the past can be the only legitimate defense against the social forces that keep trying to repackage it as a vision of the future.
At heart, however, “Armageddon Time” is a story about Paul’s relationship with someone even older than Johnny: His maternal grandfather. Played by a heartbreaking yet unexaggerated Anthony Hopkins, whose brave twilight performances continue to mine raw honesty from the depths of human frailty, Aaron Rabinowitz was born in Liverpool because his Jewish mother had to flee Ukraine, moved to Queens in the hopes that he could outrun anti-Semitism if he kept going West, and became a patriarch capable of buying his family a conditional seat at the table of white society.
But in spite of his happy-go-lucky demeanor and “favorite grandpa” energy, Aaron is troubled by the country where he’s replanted his roots. He struggles (privately, wordlessly) to reconcile socioeconomic stability with the price of maintaining it. He knows the game is rigged, and he didn’t come all this way for his family to be on the losing end of it.
When Paul and Johnny get in serious trouble, it’s Aaron who threatens to doom their friendship by sending his grandson to the pricey Kew-Forest School in Forest Hills. At the same time, however, Aaron can’t unsee the various divides that America’s ruling class pretends to ignore. He’s not a saint — we Jews don’t really believe in them — but he was born with an obligation to recognize the violence that results from complicity.
Aaron’s PTA-president daughter, Esther (a nuanced, exasperated, passably “movie Jewish” Anne Hathaway) and her upwardly mobile electrician husband (Jeremy Strong, leveraging his natural implosiveness into the role of a well-meaning, short-tempered, obsessively aspirant second-generation father with such harrowing familiarity that I almost wondered if Gray and I might have shared the same dad) are hopelessly preoccupied with their fantasies of success, but the more playful and uncorrupted of his two grandsons still has the potential to become a real mensch.
Paul’s parents might see his artistic ambitions as an insurrection against their shared vision of WASP-certified affluence, but his grandfather is happy to nurture the kid’s spirit; to teach him the historical imperative of doing right by people, especially when benefitting from a system that’s designed to do them wrong. Where Paul’s dad encourages him to never look back, Paul’s grandfather cautions him to “never forget the past, because you never know when they might come looking for you.” Any Jew who lives long enough knows that permission to exist is typically granted on a temporary basis (some recognize what that means for others, and some choose to perpetuate it against them).
If this all sounds like the recipe for some blinkered Oscars bullshit, let me assure you that “Armageddon Time” will gross approximately $15 when it opens in theaters later this year. James Gray makes films that are meant to be watched, but they often ask you to meet them more than half-way, and this one isn’t an exception just because its main character is a kid with some capital “L” Lessons to Learn. “Armageddon Time” is beautiful and gently stirring in its own way, but it’s also about as warm and fuzzy as a prayer shawl.
Shot like a cold Sunday afternoon and colored with a million different shades of molted brown, “Armageddon Time” is chilled by the sadness of decay and the aching memory of days gone by in a way that allows it to cleave much closer to Terence Davies than Kenneth Branagh. On a similar tip, Gray’s Coppola fetishism assumes new meaning in a film that suggests he sees his own childhood through the murky shadows of Gordon Willis’ camera, especially when “Armageddon Time” uses the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky as a sly rebuttal against the director’s own supposed lack of originality.
Scenes set inside the Graff family’s musty Flushing row house — brought to life by Happee Massee’s time-machine production design — tend to prioritize the texture of Gray’s memories over the urgency of their underlying dramatic conflicts. Paul’s childhood home is remembered in the way that you might remember your own, not as a physical place so much as a bittersweet matrix of intersecting dreams and moral imperatives; a polyester snow-globe lined with old carpet.
That same approach informs the understated relationship between Paul and Johnny, which boasts all the trappings of a “One Black Friend” movie like “Green Book,” but sidesteps most of the potholes that make them so insufferable. It helps a great deal that Repeta and Webb give two of the best kid performances in recent memory (you might have to go back to “Moonrise Kingdom” to find another American movie that required a pair of pre-teens to do this much, and inspired them to do it so well). Repeta’s salamander poise and trembling self-scrutiny reminded me of Saoirse Ronan in “Atonement,” while Webb’s ability to complicate the last gasps of childhood innocence with a hard-earned sense of hopelessness allow Johnny to exist apart from his various disadvantages.
Yes, Johnny is an accessory to Paul’s story, and yes, their friendship builds to a moral dilemma so crystalline that it might as well have been lifted from a coming-of-age novel like “A Separate Peace,” but Gray’s film — so sharp about how it renders Paul’s dim awareness of the world around him, up to and including his own privilege in it — boasts a deep understanding of what kids are able to offer each other. And what they’re not. Gray is obviously haunted by his inability to rescue the real Johnny from the systemic injustices that pulled them apart, but “Armageddon Time” doesn’t find the director absolving himself of that helplessness with a back-pat of a movie about a nice Jew doing his first mitzvah. None of his characters are left off the hook.
While Gray’s nostalgia may be morally instructive to a certain degree, the desiccated little gem of a movie that he’s whittled down from it isn’t much convinced about the possibility of pure-hearted kindness. Not in a country of “no free lunches” — a country where privilege is so entitled that marginalization is made to feel justified.
“Armageddon Time” is more invested in the value of the pyrrhic victories that keep our heads on straight and our souls connected to whatever traditions they came from. In forgetting the kind of bullshit that Jessica Chastain’s Maryanne Trump tells Paul’s class when Fred Trump brings her to speak at Kew-Forest. In scoffing at candidate Reagan when he tells Jim Bakker that “we might be the generation that sees Armageddon” as part of an effort to scare his white Christian voter base into submission. Assimilation may seem like a necessary evil, but it’s not always a bad thing that we bring a part of ourselves with us wherever we go, especially when it’s a part of ourselves worth leaving behind.
“Armageddon Time” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters later this year.