It is common knowledge that cinema is an audio-visual medium through which filmmakers can tell all kinds of stories, taking inspiration from one’s personal experiences, historical data, or something that’s completely fictional in nature. If it’s told with passion, sincerity, and care, then it can resonate with someone who is geographically and culturally distant from the subject matter of the movie, as well as with those who have lived the lives of the characters on the screen. But then there are movies that are so busy sending a message to their “target audience”—or, worse, are so confident about the fact that the message they are sending is incredibly potent—that they forget to be movies. Such is the case with James Gray’s highly anticipated “Armageddon Time.” And it’s particularly sad because he has delivered two of the best films of the 2010s in the form of “The Lost City of Z” and “Ad Astra.” Then what happened this time? Let’s find out.
Major Spoilers Ahead
What Starts The Rift In Paul And Johnny’s Friendship?
“Armageddon Time” takes place in 1980 in Queens, New York City, and follows a Jewish-American kid called Paul Graff. He has dreams of becoming an artist and the class clown, which lands him in trouble with a teacher at his school, Mr. Turkeltaub. He becomes friends with an African American kid named Johnny Davis, who has flunked a year and joins him in his attempts at pulling Turkeltaub’s leg. But, judging by the teacher’s reaction, he realizes that Turkeltaub is way harsher towards Johnny even when he is unaware of who the real perpetrator is. Away from this very obvious environment of racism is Paul’s financially stable family which has all the quirks, drama, and animosity that dysfunctional families usually have. However, during a dinner conversation between Esther (Paul’s mother), Irving (Paul’s father), Aaron (Paul’s grandfather), Ted (Paul’s brother), Mickey (Paul’s grandmother), Ruth (Paul’s aunt), and Louis (Paul’s uncle) about Paul’s future in a private school, it becomes apparent that racism exists in this family too.
Later on, when Aaron narrates a story about how his mother escaped antisemitic persecution in Ukraine, it becomes clear that Paul’s family has faced oppression. And due to the antisemitism in the United States of America, it’s evident that Paul is going to face the same in his lifetime. That’s why Aaron motivates him to follow his dreams and tells him to stand up against any form of oppression. In stark contrast to that, Johnny’s dreams of going to NASA are quashed by fellow African Americans who tell him that the institution isn’t going to let him through due to the color of his skin. The divide in Paul and Johnny’s trajectories becomes even more apparent when they are caught smoking weed. While Paul is beaten up by his father and sent to a private school, Johnny is essentially forced to quit school and do his own thing to get by. So, even though both of them belong to minority communities, “Armageddon Time” sends the message that African Americans always get the short end of the stick.
What Is Aaron’s Final Lesson For Paul?
So, now that the core theme of “Armageddon Time” has been established, you’d expect Gray to flesh it out by digging deeper into the interpersonal dynamics of the characters and putting society in the spotlight. To be honest, he does that. But it is so impersonal, distant, disjointed, and vapid that none of it hits anywhere on the emotional scale. The film’s most eye-opening moment is supposed to be the scene where Paul distances himself from Johnny as a wire fence stands between them. In addition to that, when Paul’s “new friends” indulge in racism, he doesn’t protest and lets them joke about Johnny. However, the writing is so flat, the performances are so awkward, and the framing is so bland that the magnanimity of Paul’s attempt at appearing racist isn’t impactful. Even when Gray tries to emphasize this shift in Paul’s personality through a conversation scene with his teacher, it’s just plain dull. Not because of the subject at hand but because of the filmmaking.
Now, Gray doesn’t want “Armageddon Time” to be an emotionless affair. That’s why he throws in a contrived plot development in the form of Aaron’s bone cancer. This allows him to let Aaron give a “passionate” speech to Paul about the importance of standing up to those who divide on the basis of race, creed, and religion. Why? Because Paul has the advantage of blending into the “White” crowd. Paul can get a “seat at the table.” Paul has financial stability and access to private education. So, he needs to use that privilege to protect those who aren’t as affluent as him. And it is at this point in this arduously paced film that it becomes clear that Gray is so gobsmacked by the fact that he had this epiphany that the elite needs to be righteous that he simply didn’t care about crafting interesting scenes. He is sure that repeating the same message again and again will do the trick. Well, sadly, it doesn’t and leaves the film’s third act on shaky ground.
‘Armageddon Time’ Ending, Explained: How Does Paul Misinterpret Aaron’s Advice To Stand Up For The Oppressed?
When Paul returns from Aaron’s funeral, he finds out that Johnny is essentially on the run. He requests Johnny (who doesn’t have a livable house) to stay in the makeshift cabin that Irving had built for Paul in their backyard. After hearing his parents lament about his future, Paul decides to run away with Johnny. How? He notices that the private school he goes to has several computers. Since they are rare and expensive, he can sell them and build his and Johnny’s future with that money. Because that’s the only way to attain his freedom and help Johnny bypass systemic oppression. But when the time comes to actually sell it, Johnny ends up being the one to go into the store and subsequently gets accused of trying to make money off of stolen items. The punishment that they receive later is obviously disproportionate. It’s insinuated that Johnny has been sent to juvenile prison, while Paul gets off with no charges against him because Irving fixed one of the cops’ water heaters.
During the concluding moments of the film, Irving reiterates for the umpteenth time that, as a Jewish person in the United States of America, Paul should utilize any opportunity he gets to move forward. When he goes to school the next day, he realizes how lopsided every institution in the country is and walks into the distance. Therefore, Paul starts off as a person who can identify racism but can’t call it out in an explicit fashion. At the end of his journey, he sees racism play out in real-time and fails to stop it from happening. You are inclined to give Paul some leeway because he’s an extremely introverted kid. And you want to hope that, as he grows up, he becomes more vocal about the atrocities happening around him instead of passively benefiting from his place in society.
That said, going by Irving’s conversation with Paul and the Trumps’ speech at the private school, it’s going to be an uphill task. Because the idea of being a part of the capitalistic rat race (and being obsessively money-minded) in order to make one’s life meaningful has been embedded in Paul’s mind from a very young age. That mindset stands in direct contradiction with Aaron’s ideology (which dominates Paul’s mind) of being generous when it comes to sharing one’s resources and going to war for the oppressed. And there’s no way to say if this dilemma is going to make or break Paul. It’s the kind of dilemma faced by people from minority communities who manage to surpass the boundaries placed upon them by the majority communities. They don’t know if they should make the most of the opportunities they have right now. Or if they should work towards making a better future for others from their community. “Armageddon Time” doesn’t provide a concrete solution because there isn’t one out there.
In conclusion, Gray hammers home the following themes: The United States of America is anti-Semitic and racist. Jews have the upper hand because they have a light skin tone and can blend in with the Caucasian crowd. So, they should use this unfair advantage to their benefit (and maybe help those who are more oppressed than them). He says that parents can be abusive and care about your future at the same time. And he repeats these “messages” so many times, and that too with such disinterest, that when the credits begin to roll after the longest 2 hours in the world, it loses its ability to inspire or move. This could’ve been one of the most relevant movies of the year because it’s coming out during a time when antisemitism and racism are on the rise again. But I’m afraid it’ll get forgotten in the annals of cinematic history as just another “Oscar bait” film.
“Armageddon Time” is a 2022 Drama film directed by James Gray.