Saturday, February 11, 2023

Armageddon Time: A Review



I am far too young to remember the 1980s, a time that so many either love or hate, depending on worldview. Armageddon Time is squarely in the latter, but that alone should not make it bad. A serious of poor decisions do all that.

In 1980 New York, the Jewish Graff family is struggling to balance life with school and work. The youngest son, Paul (Banks Repeta) goes to public school while his older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) goes to private school. Paul has befriended Jonathan (Jaylin Webb), a black boy who inspires ire from their teacher.

Paul dreams of being an artist, an aspiration encouraged by his grandfather Aaron Rabinowicz (Anthony Hopkins). Paul, however, cannot stay away from both Jonathan and the trouble he brings. Leaving a field trip to the Guggenheim and smoking marijuana are a couple of highlights. Frustrated with Paul's actions, his parents Irving (Jeremy Strong) and Esther (Anne Hathaway) opt to send him to Forest Manor Preparatory School. 

Paul finds nothing good there, even with the financial backing of Fred Trump. He also encounters openly racist students exercising their white privilege. Jonathan for his part has been hiding out at the Graff's storage shed. Paul and Jonathan dream of going to Florida, and the best way to finance it is to steal a computer. That theft will have repercussions for all concerned, but with no guidance available from Grandpa Aaron, Paul must not just face life among racists, but under the evil that is Ronald Reagan.

Armageddon Time comes from how the Graffs believed Reagan's election would lead to nuclear war. Do people look upon the hysteria Reagan's win caused with a hearty laugh or with a wince of regret? Obviously, there was no nuclear war, so Armageddon did not come.

What pushes Armageddon Time down is how despite the film's best efforts, the Paul/Jonathan friendship was rather toxic. The expression "bad company corrupts good character" came to mind repeatedly. Jonathan is a pretty awful person: verbally abusive towards the teacher, introducing Paul to pot, talking him into ditching a field trip. It is highly unlikely that Paul would have committed breaking and entering if not for his loyalty to Jonathan. Armageddon Time may want to push Jonathan and Paul as these close friends, but I'm with Irving and Esther on this: Jonathan was a corrupting force. 

As so much of Armageddon Time is built around Jonathan and Paul, we end up with two unlikeable characters doing mostly awful things. It does not help that the performances were a bit forced. I can only hope that Repeta and Webb were weak due to James Gray's writing and directing. There was a certain unbelievability to them, a "we are acting" mode in how they came across.

To be fair, I think Gray's script did not help. Sometimes Armageddon Time went in strange directions, such as when Paul fantasizes about being seen as a great artist with his own work at the Guggenheim. This flight of fancy seems wildly at odds with what is meant to be a serious drama. 

I think throwing in Trump was, if not a mistake, at least a bit curious. It might be historically accurate, but it still comes across as trying to drag present-day anger into a film set long before Fred Trump's son reached the Presidency.

The only real bright shining spot was Hopkins in his small role of Grandpapa Aaron. In his scenes he connected the past antisemitism he faced and fled from to the present-day racism and intolerance Jonathan faced when he comes to visit Paul at Forest Manor. 

Armageddon Time does not make one nostalgic for the 1980s. However, it also does not have much to offer the viewer. Feeling longer than its almost two-hour run time, people will soon tire waiting for Armageddon Time.

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