Armageddon Time is the “wrong” kind of woke. By which, I mean it’s of a brand that isn’t going to get wokesters on side, because it fundamentally misunderstands the necessary ingredients for coordinating such reverence. Adding to its woes, it’s an entirely unnecessary, redundant case of a director recounting his formative years. You know, like everyone lately, from “Spielberg” to Cuarón. Indeed, were it not for Gray clearly having a secret benefactor who ensures he’s funded regardless of how popular his movies are (they aren’t), one might have assumed it garnered a greenlight purely on the basis of its “I hate Donald Trump” imprimatur. Which, of course, could never happen.
James Gray makes movies you have to be reminded you’ve seen. For a while, these were crime movies. Then he extended his slender genre reach a little. His pictures don’t tend to elicit strong responses. Around and about We Own the Night, I wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t Gavin O’Connor (Pride and Glory). He’s a serious filmmaker (Two Lovers, The Immigrant), but one entirely lacking in personality or vision (Ad Astra). His pictures appear to have other, better moviemakers in their eyeline, but because they can’t mimic their personalities, you tend to struggle to locate just who. Armageddon Time ought to have bags of brio and charm, being as it’s autobiographical, but it’s simply stiff and formal. Well made for what it is – none of Gray’s films are “bad” from a technical point to of view – but what is it?
Well, to a degree, it’s standard-issue woke self-excoriation, but because it’s also semiautobiographical, it’s all about the touchstone thematic point – the social-justice one – seen through the lens of a white male filmmaker. You know how Ed Norton made Motherless Brooklyn? This is like that but with less Tourette’s and white-saviour figures (unless we figure that figure as Gray himself and his devotion to the cause).
The gist is “I had a black friend once, and it didn’t work out and I feel bad, really bad, cos I didn’t do everything I could to help him, because I’m weak and white and privileged, but I also get a free pass, right? Because I’m Jewish! Look, here’s Anthony Hopkins being wise and Jewish and windbagging on about anti-Semitism. Here’s his speech – his Oscar-winning speech, in my mind – where he tells me to stand up for black people! Now can I have some awards recognition, please? What’s that? I’m still really boring? I’m a swot?!! I look like I might be Chris Chibnall’s separated-at-birth sibling?”
This is about the level of Armageddon Time. Gray presents the African-American experience through the second-hand eyes of his younger self, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta). Paul makes friends with Johnny Davis (Jay Webb) at state school. Paul’s older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) goes to private school (where Paul will end up). Paul’s mum (Anne Hathaway) is on the PTA, and dad Irving (Jeremy Strong) is an electrician. Grandad is Ant, which seems to be enough. Paul and Johnny get into scrapes, including smoking a joint and stealing a computer. They’re arrested, and Paul never sees Johnny again; thanks to white privilege, Paul evades charges.
Gray is aiming squarely at low-hanging fruit throughout, of white privilege breeding white privilege, of institutionalised racism, loathsome Republicans and Trump. He isn’t just hating Donald. It’s “Do you see just how much I hate Donald Trump? Look see, I even hate his entire lineage! That’s how much! No one could possibly hate him more than me. I hate him even more than I hate myself for being white! But all in a very controlled, simmering way, such that you wouldn’t even know I was angry unless you asked me. Why, I don’t even deserve to be a successful director… I mean relatively successful… I mean okay none of my films have made any money”.
I’ll admit to a degree of disconnect throughout. How does a kid with attitude – although, solid as Banks Repeta is, he doesn’t remotely look like someone with Paul’s penchant for mischief and acting the little shit – turn into Gray? “I just wanted to make everyone laugh” protests Paul after Mr Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk) makes an example of him for passing round a caricature of his teacher in class… Looks at Gray’s resume… So that worked out well for you, did it, James?
On the family side, it should be little surprise that Strong is the MVP, disappearing into a grey parent with a temper. He also gets easily the best moments in the movie, telling Paul how Ant “was a terrific guy. He held us all together” and explaining to Paul “We got very, very lucky” with regard to him avoiding juvie hall. He makes Irving’s self-abrogating excuses seem almost reasonable: “But life is unfair. Sometime, some people get a raw deal, and I hate that… but you have to survive… you make the most of your break and you do not look back”. Obviously, James got the chance to do so (“Never ever forget the past”, Ant tells Paul) and be a mensch to those kids.
Anne Hathaway’s eyes don’t seem as large as I remembered. Aren’t they normally popping out of her head? The title feels completely out of place, as does The Clash’s Armagideon Time; it seems about as germane as a Woody Allen movie using the Stones. Consequently, references to nuclear threat are superfluous, because we don’t perceive Paul fretting about it (there’s more time given to the equally fictional Apollo missions).
Gray indulges a fantasy sequence at Guggenheim that’s really quite pitiful in its strident lack of imagination; one can safely assume he would never think to put anything as vital as a killer space baboon on screen. I admit it, I did like The Lost City of Z, despite some jarring presentist sentiments, but there’s always an exception. Elsewhere, I put what I liked in Ad Astra, at least in part, down to what Gray didn’t intend for it.
So Armageddon Time is less a poor film than not a very good one. It isn’t that it’s badly made (it isn’t), that it doesn’t just about cope as a(n entirely undistinguished and inessential) story, or that it’s individual talking points aren’t valid (some are, some aren’t, but all are well ploughed). It’s that it is cumulatively irksome in its slavish, beholden gospelising and yet – per Disney’s systematic offending of the very groups it is attempting to appease – it can’t even get that right (Johnny is barely a character in his own right). There’s nothing actively awful here, but Armageddon Time is desperately pedestrian in its socio-political prostrations and redundant in its autobiography.