armageddon time review hard lessons about life in america

‘Armageddon Time’ Review: Hard Lessons About Life in America

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Can you remember the first day of sixth grade? Would you even want to? James Gray, in the opening scene of “Armageddon Time,” his tender and lacerating new film, brings it all back with clammy precision.

We are at Public School 173 in Queens, New York, at our desks in Mr. Turkeltaub’s class. It’s 1980 — maybe you’re old enough to remember that, too — and two boys are about to get in trouble, one for mouthing off during roll call and the other for drawing a picture of the teacher (Andrew Polk) with the body of a turkey. It seems like if your name was Turkeltaub and you taught sixth grade you might be able to take the joke, but on the other hand, maybe not being able to take the joke is the whole reason you’re teaching sixth grade in the first place. This is a man, after all, whose job requires him to utter the words “gym is a privilege, people” with a straight face.

“Armageddon Time” isn’t about Mr. Turkeltaub, though his contempt for his students helps to propel its plot. It’s not about gym class either, but it is — astutely, uncomfortably and in the end tragically — about privilege.

The two troublemakers — Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) and Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) — become friends, bonded by their dislike of Turkey (as they call him when he’s out of earshot) and also by the kind of shared interests that connect boys on the edge of adolescence. For all their rebellious bravado in Turkey’s class, there is still something childlike in the way Johnny and Paul approach the world, and a sweet softness in the mannerisms of the young actors who play them.

Johnny collects NASA mission patches and dreams of becoming an astronaut. Paul thinks the Beatles will get back together soon. He also tells Johnny — matter-of-factly rather than boastfully — that his family is “super rich.” This isn’t quite true. Paul’s father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), is a boiler repairman. His mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), is a home-economics teacher and P.T.A. officer who is considering a run for the local school board. With help from Esther’s parents (Anthony Hopkins and Tovah Feldshuh), they are sending Paul’s older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), to private school, where Paul will eventually join him.

In a fairly short time — between the start of school and Thanksgiving, with the election of Ronald Reagan in between — Paul will arrive at a clearer, harsher understanding of how power, status and money work in America, a lesson that will come at Johnny’s expense.

Johnny is Black, Paul is white, and even as they navigate the world together, they experience it in different ways. Mr. Turkeltaub may punish them both, but he is much harder on Johnny, calling him an “animal” and ridiculing him in front of his peers. Johnny, who lives with his grandmother, is one of a small number of Black students at the school, and their presence alarms some of the ostensibly tolerant adults in Paul’s family.

Interracial friendship is an old and complicated theme in American culture. Think of Ishmael and Queequeg bedded down at the Spouter-Inn in “Moby-Dick,” Huck and Jim adrift on the Mississippi in “Huckleberry Finn” or Dylan and Mingus tagging up Brooklyn in Jonathan Lethem’s “The Fortress of Solitude.” In almost every case, the white character’s perception is central (these books are all first-person narratives, and in a palpable if not literal sense, “Armageddon Time” is too). The Black character, however brave, beautiful or tragic he may be, is the vehicle of his companion’s moral awakening.

“Armageddon Time” plants itself in this tradition, but it is also honest about the limitations of its own perspective. Gray tells the story of Paul’s discovery of the iniquities of race and class, but doesn’t pretend that this painful knowledge might redeem him, much less rescue Johnny.

Nor does the cruelty of American racism come as news — certainly not to Johnny, and not in the Graff household either. They are Jews whose ascent into the American middle class is shadowed by generational memories of Cossacks and Nazis in the old world and less lethal brushes with antisemitism in their new home.

The moral center of the clan is Esther’s father, Aaron, who has a special fondness for Paul. He’s a gentle, playful, didactic presence in the boy’s life — Hopkins finds the essential grit hiding underneath the twinkle — dispensing gifts and jokes and hard nuggets of wisdom. He’s a comforting presence for Paul, who is terrified of Irving’s violent temper and at an awkward stage in his relationship with Esther.

Gray’s filmography — he has directed and written eight features so far, starting with “Little Odessa” in 1995 — can be understood as a series of inquiries into the meaning of home, which is usually somewhere in the outer boroughs of New York. After venturing further afield in his last two movies (the Amazon in “The Lost City of Z” and outer space in “Ad Astra”), he has swerved into deeply personal territory.

But even as Paul Graff is an unmistakable alter ego, his situation is a version of the predicament faced by the young men played by Joaquin Phoenix in “We Own the Night” and “Two Lovers.” His curiosity may push him toward rebellion, adventure and the testing of taboos, but at the same time he is entangled in the warm, sticky tendrils of family obligation and tribal identity.

Gray surveys the Graff household with an eye that is both affectionate and critical. (The eye of the director of photography, Darius Khondji, finds the precise colors of coziness and claustrophobia, and the subtle shades of nostalgia and remorse.) A different filmmaker might have made Esther, Irving and Aaron avatars of liberal hypocrisy. They despise Reagan and root for the underdogs. They also send Ted and Paul to a school whose major benefactors include the Trump family, and drop toxic morsels of bigotry into their table talk.

But “Armageddon Time” is less interested in cataloging their moral failings than in investigating the contradictions they inhabit, the swirl of mixed messages and ethical compromises that define Paul’s emerging sense of the world and his place in it. He hears a lot — including from one of the Trumps — about hard work and independence, and also about the importance of connections. He is told that the game is rigged against him, and also that it’s rigged in his favor. He’s instructed to fit in and to fight back, to follow his dreams and to be realistic.

And Johnny? The messages he receives are much more brutal, though hardly less confusing. But what happens to him can only be guessed, by Paul and the audience, because one of the lessons Paul learns is that his friend’s story was never his to tell.

Armageddon Time
Rated R. Bad feelings, bad behavior, bad language. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters.