Writer/director James Gray’s well-intentioned but flawed drama “Armageddon Time” (Focus) attempts to draw a through-line from the dawn of the Reagan Era to the Trump-tainted present day, and even includes the presence of Fred Trump.
Ambitiously touching on racism, anti-Semitism, and the failures in public education, the reach of “Armageddon Time” exceeds its grasp.
An obviously personal story, “Armageddon Time” is set in Queens in 1980. On his first day of sixth grade, artistically, but not academically, oriented Paul (Banks Repeta) gets off to a bad start with his teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk). But the teacher’s unabashed vitriol finds another victim, Paul’s black classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who is repeating the grade. Paul and Johnny’s experience with the teacher forges a bond between them.
Right off the bat, we are shown the societal and economic differences in the young characters. Johnny lives in a rundown apartment in Hollis, with his senile grandmother. He dreams of escaping to Florida, where his stepbrother lives, and going to work at NASA. Paul, on the other hand, lives with his parents schoolteacher Esther (Anne Hathaway) and repairman Irving (Jeremy Strong), and cruel older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) in a split-level house. Their home is the sight of regular extended family meals where they are joined by Esther’s father and mother Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) and Mickey (Tovah Feldshuh), and others. Some of these scenes recall vintage Woody Allen dinner table shticks.
Central to the plot are Paul’s interactions with those around him. His friendship with Johnny and his close relationship with grandpa Aaron are the ones from which he gets the most satisfaction. On the other hand, he is constantly battling with Esther, Irving and Ted. There is the constant threat of physical abuse, particularly from the short-fused Irving who, at one point, breaks down a locked bathroom door so that he can punish Paul by beating him with a belt.
The “Armageddon Time” title is derived from an early interview with Ronald Reagan on the 1980 Presidential campaign trail, in reference to his fear-mongering regarding the potential for nuclear war. The Trump presence, embodied by Fred (John Diehl), as well as Donald’s older sister Maryanne (Jessica Chastain) occurs during an assembly at the private school to which Paul is transferred when Aaron and his parents become concerned about his slipping grades. Additionally, Aaron’s immigrant story, involving the anti-Semitic terror experienced by his family in Russia is also a key plotline.
In 2022, as racism and anti-Semitism have become increasingly rampant, the timing of the release of “Armageddon Time,” as well as Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” are sure to strike a chord with viewers. But “Armageddon Time” suffers from being at least 25 minutes too long, and some of the questionable casting (Anne Hathway), becomes a distraction.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of eight books including the poetry chapbook Fear of Muses (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.