The ability to remember details and summon emotions from one’s childhood is a gift, especially in the hands of a filmmaker as talented as James Gray. In Armageddon Time he fearlessly lays bare a crucial incident from his adolescence that haunts him to this day. He relates the story in the larger context of his life in Queens, New York in the early 1980s. His mother is a striver, his father a frustrated working-man; they have no patience for his dreaminess and lack of discipline. He likes to draw but his teachers dismiss his impressive efforts because he isn’t doing his class assignments. The only one who sees the boy for what he is—and what he could be—is his grandfather, a Jewish immigrant who talks straight and brings him presents.
That these characters should be played by the unlikely triumvirate of Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, and Anthony Hopkins is just one of the marvels of Gray’s intensely emotional memoir. Their performances are superb, laced with details that ring completely true and matched only by the soulful work of a boy named Banks Repeta in the leading role. His face reveals what reams of dialogue could never convey as he endures the torment of sixth grade—first in a neighborhood public school, and then in a private institution where he is encouraged to shun his only friend, a black boy who has been bussed into the district. A scene where our young hero cowers as his father administers a whipping left me feeling as if I were that boy, although I don’t recall experiencing anything similar. Is that just selective memory at work? I can’t say.
Gray has said that his film is about white privilege; with this story he atones for the benefits he enjoyed as a kid. The film is shown through his eyes, and there are many touchstones for someone like me who grew up in a Jewish family in the suburbs of New York City, albeit a few decades earlier. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me in my pursuits. I also tolerated school a little better than the filmmaker. But I had a clubhouse in the back yard (which I haven’t thought about in years) and lived through my share of ethical and moral dilemmas during my adolescent years.
The director says, “History and myth always begin in the microcosm of the personal.” In other words, the more specific a film is the more universal it becomes. There are many examples, including two earlier movies that hearken back to their creators’ youth: Louis Malle’s Aux Revoir Les Enfants and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Armageddon Time earns a place alongside those memorable achievements. In its unflinching honesty and absence of simplistic nostalgia it is a beautiful piece of work.