Armageddon Time review: Heartbreaking Anthony Hopkins lifts James Gray’s exquisite film memoir

Cannes: Reggae, the Trumps and another major Anthony Hopkins performance swirl together in the small but extraordinary (and extremely Jewish) coming-of-age story of James Gray.

There are a number of memorable images from James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” a singularly introspective space adventure in which Brad Pitt travels to the outer limits of our solar system just to hear dad Lee Jones tell him he’s gone. record, but none have stuck with me quite like Pitt’s astronaut shot landing on the Moon – the very first leg of his interstellar journey into the heart of darkness. Once the ultimate symbol of humanity’s possibility and the closest proof of our species’ infinite reach, the Moon has since been shrunk to a low-gravity version of Newark Airport, complete with fast food restaurants Americans and the general vibe of an upscale New Jersey outlet. mall. The point is clear even before Pitt’s character twice points it out: there is nothing truly new for man to discover among the vast ocean of stars, for we take ourselves with us wherever we go. let’s go. The only true unknown land in the universe is the human soul.

This moment is something of a skeleton key to Gray’s films, most of which are a bit more earthly, but all of them – from Coppola-inspired family tales like “The Immigrant” to Coppola-inspired Campbellian epics like “The Lost City.” of Z” – charting a sort of intimately circular journey into the unknown and straight back out. The same can be said of his muted but gorgeous new “Armageddon Time,” which distills the director’s legendary sweep into an ultra-autobiographical coming-of-age film that could easily have become Jewish-American “Belfast.” without his Talmudic film. moral tendency and fierce aversion to sentimentality.

Only James Gray would saddle a modest self-portrait about his sixth-grade memories with a title that makes it sound more like “Apocalypse Now” than any other movie (a reference to candidate Reagan’s nuclear warmongering, “Armageddon Time” borrows its name from a Willie Williams reggae jam from 1979 covered by The Clash). Likewise, only James Gray would turn this self-portrait into a story of post-war assimilation so powerful that a family outing to see the “Private Benjamin” could resonate with the same cosmic scale as a trip to Neptune.

Moving away from the biggest production of his career with a wistful return to the kind of small-scale New York stories (a la “The Yards” and “Little Odessa”) that first put him on the map , Gray revisits his childhood years and all their kindred ghosts with a polished memoir that hears echoes of the 19th European pogroms reverberating through the Trump family – 100 years later and some 4,000 miles away – in much the same way as “Ad Astra” found an Applebee on the Moon.

At first glance, “Armageddon Time” is the fondly remembered story of a prepubescent Jewish boy named Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), the slightly older black kid he meets on the first day of his life. school in September 1980 (Jaylin Webb plays Johnny Davis, a sophomore in sixth grade), and the semi-innocent friendship these two space cadets form based on their mutual interests: rockets and fucking with their racist asshole of a homeroom teacher. It’s a story about the invisible fault lines of inequality, the moral compromises demanded by the American Dream, and the very practical ways in which remembering the past may be the only legitimate defense against social forces trying to repackage it. as a vision of the future.

At its core, however, “Armageddon Time” is a story about Paul’s relationship with someone even older than Johnny: his maternal grandfather. Played by a heartbreaking but unapologetic Anthony Hopkins, whose brave twilight performances continue to extract raw honesty from the depths of human frailty, Aaron Rabinowitz was born in Liverpool because his Jewish mother had to flee Ukraine, moved in Queens in the hope that he could outrun anti-Semitism if he continued to move West, and become a patriarch who could buy his family a conditional seat at the table of white society.

But despite his carefree demeanor and his “favorite grandfather” energy, Aaron is troubled by the country where he has put his roots back. He struggles (in private, without a word) to reconcile socio-economic stability with the cost of maintaining it. He knows the game is rigged and he didn’t come all this way for his family to lose.

When Paul and Johnny get into serious trouble, it’s Aaron who threatens to ruin their friendship by sending his grandson to cherished Kew-Forest School in Forest Hills. At the same time, however, Aaron cannot ignore the various divisions that the American ruling class pretends to ignore. He’s not a saint — we Jews don’t really believe in that — but he was born with an obligation to recognize the violence that results from complicity.

Aaron’s daughter, PTA president Esther (a nuanced, exasperated, and somewhat “movie-Jewish” Anne Hathaway) and her electrician husband (Jeremy Strong, taking advantage of his natural implosion as a well-meaning wannabe , hot-tempered and obsessive second-generation father with such heartbreaking familiarity I almost wondered if Gray and I had shared the same father) are desperately preoccupied with their fantasies of success, but the more playful and uncorrupted of his two grandsons still has the potential to become a true mensch.

Paul’s parents might see his artistic ambitions as an insurrection against their shared vision of WASP-certified wealth, but his grandfather is happy to nurture the child’s spirit; to teach him the historical imperative to do good by people, especially when they benefit from a system designed to do them harm. Where Paul’s father encourages him to never look back, Paul’s grandfather warns him to “never forget the past, because you never know when they might come looking for you.” Any Jew who lives long enough knows that permission to exist is usually granted on a temporary basis (some recognize what it means to others, and some choose to perpetuate it against them).

If this all sounds like a recipe for some Oscar bullshit, let me assure you that “Armageddon Time” will make around $15 when it opens in theaters later this year. James Gray makes movies that are meant to be watched, but they often require you to meet them more than halfway through, and this one is no exception simply because its main character is a kid with lessons. in capital “L” to learn. . “Armageddon Time” is beautiful and gently moving in its own way, but it’s also about as warm and fuzzy as a prayer shawl.

Shot like a cold Sunday afternoon and colored with a million different shades of molten brown, “Armageddon Time” is chilled by the sadness of decay and the painful memory of days gone by in a way that allows it to attach much more to Terence Davies than to Kenneth Branagh. On a similar edge, Coppola’s fetishism of Gray takes on new meaning in a film that suggests he sees his own childhood through the murky shadows of Gordon Willis’ camera, particularly when “Armageddon Time” uses the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky as a sly rebuttal against the director. supposedly lacking in originality.

Scenes set inside the Graff family’s moldy Flushing townhouse – brought to life by Happee Massee’s time machine production design – tend to prioritize the texture of memories de Gray in relation to the urgency of their underlying dramatic conflicts. Paul’s childhood home is remembered in the same way you might remember your own, not as a physical place so much as a bittersweet matrix of intersecting dreams and moral imperatives; a polyester snow globe covered with an old carpet.

That same approach informs the low-key relationship between Paul and Johnny, which has all the trappings of a “One Black Friend” movie like “Green Book,” but avoids most of the potholes that make it so unbearable. It helps a lot that Repeta and Webb give two of the best kids performances in recent memory (you might have to go back to “Moonrise Kingdom” to find another American movie that required a pair of pre-teens to pull off this much, and the inspired to do it so well). The salamander poise and Repeta’s quivering self-examination reminded me of Saoirse Ronan in “Atonement,” while Webb’s ability to complicate the last gasps of childhood innocence with a sense of despair. hard-earned allows Johnny to exist outside of his various disadvantages.

Yes, Johnny is a prop in Paul’s story, and yes, their friendship turns into a moral dilemma so crystalline it might as well have been taken from a coming-of-age novel like “A Separate Peace”, but Gray’s film – so sharp on how it renders Paul’s feeble awareness of the world around him, up to and including his own privilege – has a deep understanding of what children can offer to each other. And what they are not. Gray is obviously haunted by his inability to save the real Johnny from the systemic injustices that kept them apart, but ‘Armageddon Time’ doesn’t find the director backing away from that helplessness with a pat on the back in a movie about a nice Jew. making his first mitzvah. None of its characters are left behind.

While Gray’s nostalgia may be morally instructive to some degree, the desiccated gem of a movie he wrung from it isn’t very convinced of the possibility of pure-hearted kindness. Not in a country where “no free lunches” – a country where privilege is so justified that marginalization feels justified.

“Armageddon Time” is more invested in the value of Pyrrhic victories that keep our heads erect and our souls connected to all the traditions from which they spring. Forgetting the kind of bullshit Jessica Chastain’s Maryanne Trump tells Paul’s class when Fred Trump brings her to talk at Kew-Forest. By poking fun at candidate Reagan when he tells Jim Bakker that “we could be the generation that sees Armageddon” as part of an effort to scare his base of white Christian voters into submission. Assimilation may seem like a necessary evil, but it’s not. still a bad thing that we bring a part of ourselves everywhere we go, especially when it’s a part of ourselves worth leaving behind.

Rating: A-

“Armageddon Time” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters later this year.

Register: Stay up to date with the latest film and TV news! Sign up for our email newsletters here.

#Armageddon #Time #review #Heartbreaking #Anthony #Hopkins #lifts #James #Grays #exquisite #film #memoir