“Sometimes kids say bad words about the black kids,” Armageddon Time‘s protagonist, Paul Graff, tells his grandfather, played by Anthony Hopkins, during an outing to the park.
“And, what do you say when they do?” Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz asks in response.
“Well nothing, of course,” shrugs Paul.
“And do you think that’s smart? …Because I think it’s f*cking bullshit,” grandpa says, suddenly turning foul-mouthed.
He goes on, but the gist of wise old grandpa’s speech is that in order to “be a real mensch,” you should always tell racists to stick it up their ass. Not once does Armageddon Time actually explore what it looks like to tell the racist kids to stick it up their ass, or grapple with their reactions, or with how any black character might be helped by this. This is a movie that seems to come from the Beto O’Rourke school of politics, where the best way to deal with injustice is to use cusswords on it to show how much you care. The mere calling out of injustice is an end unto itself.
Handsome coming-of-age tale period pieces set during the director’s formative years are all the rage right now, and to go along with Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Sam Mendes’ Empire Of Light, this fall also brings us Armageddon Time — named for a line in a Ronald Reagan speech and also a Clash reggae cover, not the actual apocalypse — from director James Gray (Ad Astra, Lost City Of Z).
Normally this kind of movie is right in my wheelhouse, and between the sumptuous production design, superlative acting, and Clash songs (pandering directly to my sensibilities now), I can understand Armageddon Time‘s glowing reviews. The movie glows. And yet, something about this coming-of-age tale feels transparently self-preserving, trapped in an adolescent’s point of view. It offers a story about race where everyone gets off too easily, where it seems the most important thing a white person can do is to acknowledge that racism exists while carrying on.
Banks Repeta plays Paul Graff, a Jewish kid from Queens who dreams of being an artist and whose lax attitude towards school and smart mouth put him on an inevitable collision course with fellow detention-getter Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a black kid from a broken home repeating the sixth grade for the second time. Their teacher hates them both but Johnny seems to get the lion’s share of the blame.
Paul and Johnny become friends and get into mischief together, though Johnny has a flair for the nihilistic where Paul is merely naughty. Paul, unlike his older brother, goes to public school, where any trouble he gets into naturally incites a conversation between his working-class parents, played by Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong, and his mom’s rich parents, who want to pay to send Paul to private school with Ted (Ryan Sell), away from all the “bad influences” in their neighborhood (aka, the black kids being bused into his local public school)
In Private Parts, young Howard Stern depicts himself as having to be his parents’ progressivist guinea pig, suffering bullying and penis envy at black majority schools, thanks to his liberal-minded parents, who refuse to join in the white flight going on all around them. Paul’s family is moving in the opposite direction, and the movie catches them at a transitional point — as Paul’s dad says, “you have to take every advantage you can get.”
This puts a strain on Paul’s relationship with Johnny, who clearly needs help, which Paul doesn’t know how to provide without giving his parents even more reason to try to separate them. When they inevitably get into some big trouble together, it’s even more inevitable, and clear to all involved, that Paul is going to skate and Johnny isn’t. Johnny is fatalistic about it, in a very movie way, offering a variation on that classic movie trope where the wounded buddy urges the hero to go on without him. “Just go, it wouldn’t have mattered what you do anyway,” Johnny tells Paul, or something to that effect.
This, again, strikes me as not only something that rings slightly false for the Johnny character, but as a kind of self-preserving revisionist history from Paul. “It wouldn’t have mattered anyway” feels more like something Paul would tell himself later, to absolve himself of responsibility. So that it could just be a tragic inevitable story about racism and the time you had a black friend who introduced you to Sugar Hill Gang before you went off to private school.
It’s not that I’m advocating for false happy endings or phony heroics here, but what does Paul learn and what does he actually stand for? It seems like the movie is saying that the most important thing is to always feel bad when your black friend takes the blame for your crimes. Grandpa’s words ring in Paul’s ears: when you go off to private school, tell those racists to stick it up their ass! Okay, then what?
At least in the much-derided Amsterdam (which even I must admit was pretty uneven for the first 95% of its run time) there was an acknowledgment that the hero’s big speech at the end warning against the perils of fascism didn’t actually do much to stop fascism. It acknowledged both that hearing stirring words feels good and that they have their limitations. Sometimes a nice little speech is all you get.
Armageddon Time, by contrast, really does depict Grandpa Hopkins as this font of saintly wisdom, like the key to life actually is just distinguishing yourself from those racists at private school. Racists who in this case include, and maybe you’ve already done the “early 80s + Queens” math here, the actual Trump family. The Trumps are the big donors at the Graffs’ private school, and Fred Trump (John Diehl) shows up occasionally, with Maryanne Trump, played by Jessica Chastain, even making a speech.
By not offering any insight or exploration into what standing up to injustice actually looks like, it feels a lot like what Armageddon Time is saying is that the key to being a mensch is just not being the Trumps. It’s the perfect feel-good, origin story for the Clintonian liberal, to depict simply not being the Trumps as a heroic act.
Armageddon Time is specifically Jewish, but carries a sentiment familiar to a lot of non-Jews. “Respect your heritage by not doing racism, because when you say racist things, you sound just like the people who persecuted us.” My grandparents tried to convey similar things when I was a kid. It’s a nice thing for a kid Paul’s age to hear, but by the time you grow up you should start to notice a whiff of the self-exonerating about it.