Armageddon Time: James Gray’s Most Personal Film Yet

(L to R) Michael Banks Repeta stars as Paul Graff and Anne Hathaway stars as Esther Graff in director James Gray's ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Anne Joyce/Focus Features.

Armageddon Time is James Gray’s most personal film yet as the filmmaker decides to revisit his childhood in New York.

This one hit rather close to home since the film touches on antisemitism. Watching it on the fourth anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting probably wasn’t the best idea. In any event, the discussions in the film are so true and I was glad to see that it’s also in the trailer. I’d love to see things in my lifetime but people have a history of hating Jews for no other reason than because we’re Jewish. Listen, I could expand even more on this especially with what’s happening on social media and in cities like Los Angeles and Jacksonville but it’s just frustrating. Many Jewish families were lucky to make it to the United States during the early Jewish immigrant waves. Others were not as lucky during the rise of the Nazis due to the US quotas.

It’s fascinating to see Jewish filmmakers making their most personal films yet and commenting on antisemitism in the process. James Gray does it here and Steven Spielberg also did it with The Fabelmans coming out in theaters in November. Armageddon Time didn’t play TIFF so I had to wait for the first Chicago press screening. And again, it really hits home with everything that’s happening right now let alone watching on the anniversary. While Anthony Hopkins does get some of the most important dialogue, I wish that Gray had gone with a Jewish actor in the role of Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz. Listen, I cannot write this review and not comment on the casting given the recent push for authentic casting on the screen. Would the words be more powerful coming out of a Jewish actor’s mouth? Most certainly!

At some point, I guess I need to discuss some of the other things that happen in the film, right? Gray searches deep in his memories and growing up in Queens to write a film that touches on family, friendship, and of course, the American Dream. This is the gist of the film in a nutshell. It goes without saying that the characters are stand-ins for his family in real life. Paul Graff’s (Banks Repeta) mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), is a home economics teacher and president of the PTA while his dad, Irving (Jeremy Strong), is a plumber. And of course, both parents were the children of Jewish immigrants. Not surprisingly, Paul wants to be an artist.

It’s through Paul’s friendship with Johnny (Jaylin Webb) that the film expands on non-family life. Johnny wants to be an astronaut for NASA, having been inspired by the Apollo patches. Everything changes when both Paul and Johnny are caught smoking. After Paul’s mom is told to enroll him in remedial classes, the family transferred him to the wealthier Kew-Forest School, where some Trump family members make an appearance. All of this plays out as it did in real life for Gray. Because of Paul having a middle class background, he’s somehow able to get away scot-free with something that happens in the film. Paul’s dad is the only reason he isn’t in juvenile detention because of having done plumbing work for a police officer. One can see James Gray writing this because of the Jewish guilt as well as the race relations.

Armageddon Time
(L to R) Michael Banks Repeta as “Paul Graff” and Anthony Hopkins as “Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz” in director James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Anne Joyce / Focus Features.

When Paul transfers to the private school, we see how important his relationship is with his maternal grandfather. It’s his grandfather who tells him the horrors of antisemitism. Not surprisingly, his grandfather tells Paul to stand up against bigotry. We should always stand up and speak out! My G-d, there are words in this film that I won’t even use but I suppose that’s private school culture. Anyway, you can see how important the relationship is between Paul and his grandfather.

Gray works with cinematographer Darius Khondji and they give the film a look of one that is about to be restored. Not in a bad way, of course, but it still feels like a film we could have seen in 1979-80. Because of this, they had no choose but to shoot digitally in order to achieve the effect. It certainly works for the film! In terms of design, the film opts for as much authenticity as possible. Gray and company do an amazing job at bringing his childhood home and everything back to life.

If I had to guess, Armageddon Time will probably resonate with Jewish audiences more so than anyone else because of how it depicts the Jewish experience in America. Like I said earlier, the film’s discussion of Jew-hatred hits close to home. There are professions that Jews weren’t allowed to enter just because. People would hate on Jews just because they could. We’re an ethno-religious people and do not fit into Western society’s checkboxes on race. Take it from me, I grew up in a city where the main Jewish campus was across from an antisemitic country club. Look what’s happening right now. It took Kanye West displaying Jew-hatred to enable white supremacists and finally get celebrities and influencers to notice the rise in Jew-hatred. It’s been steadily rising but it took someone of Kanye’s status to get people to notice. But I digress.

CAST: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Tovah Feldshuh, Ryan Sell, and Anthony Hopkins

Focus Features will release Armageddon Time in theaters on October 28, 2022. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.