Written and directed by James Gray, Armageddon Time is one of several films this season drawn from the filmmakers’ personal experiences: Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun ‘, Elegance Bratton’s The Inspection.
What sets Gray’s film apart is its relentless lack of sentimentality. For all the warmth and love within the film, it’s also a clear look at the characters’ flaws, blind spots, and missteps. Especially Gray’s own.
“I wanted to do the anti-nostalgia film,” Gray said.
“I don’t think very well of myself. And I think my behavior as a 12- and 13-year-old isn’t exactly commendable, let’s put it that way. And my parents did what they could, and they were very loving people to me in many ways, but they also failed in many ways, as all parents do. I’ve failed my children, I’m sure, a million times over. And I think it does us a disservice to only look back with the brightest perspective.”
The film is set in Queens, NY in the fall of 1980, a tense cultural moment that encompasses Muhammad Ali’s defeat by Larry Holmes, Ronald Reagan’s election to the White House and the assassination of John Lennon. After young Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is transferred from his public school to a private school thanks to his doting maternal grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), Paul’s parents, Irving (Jeremy Strong) and Esther (Anne Hathaway), struggle to to keep him in line while he dreams of being an artist and spends time with a friend from his old school, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb).
As the little problems they get into escalate, Paul hatches a plan for him and Johnny to steal a computer from his new school and escape to Florida. When they get caught, Paul’s father rescues him from trouble with the police while Johnny, who is black and lives with his ailing grandmother, has no one to help or support him.
“It’s not a documentary, but it’s pretty close,” Gray said. “When actors and production designers and cinematographers get involved, it almost inevitably becomes a fantasy. I didn’t play fast and loose with a lot of facts at all.
“I didn’t want it to be just autobiographical. I wanted it to be personal, which is more important,” he said. “What is autobiographical is that I state the facts of the case. And personal means your emotional life and what is emotionally important to you is at work.”
In 2019, when Gray was alone in Paris without his family while directing the opera The Marriage of Figaro, he began to reflect on his childhood. After the grueling experiences filming The Lost City of Z, set in the Amazon River, and Ad Astra, an ambitious sci-fi story starring and producing Brad Pitt, Gray’s mind returned to what he was previously celebrated films such as “Little Odessa”, “The Yards”, “We Own the Night” and “Two Lovers”.
“I had a very difficult experience on two straight films,” said Gray, 53. “And I just wanted to rediscover my passion for the medium.” He did it, he says, by trying to “break down the barrier between me and work and make them with as much love and warmth and tenderness and a sense of loss as I could muster.”
At one point, Aaron advises Paul to “stick up for people like Johnny when they’re in need” in order to “be human.” However, Irving later tells Paul that there is nothing he can do to help his friend and that he must take care of himself first. The conflicting messages Paul receives from the two most important role models in his life form the film’s central moral dilemma.
Gray’s parents aren’t there to see Armageddon Time with their own eyes. Gray’s mother, who had brain cancer, died not long after the events depicted in the film; his father died of COVID while Gray was editing it.
“It hurts like hell,” Gray said of the timing of his father’s death. “My father never saw the film I made. I wonder what he would think if he saw it.”
Strong, an Emmy-winner for his portrayal of the brash, troubled Kendall Roy in “Succession,” was unable to meet Gray’s father to prepare for his portrayal. Strong had Gray’s wife deliver Proust’s famous questionnaire (“What is your idea of perfect happiness?”) to Gray’s father, who produced hours of audio recording that became a cornerstone of his performance.
“You’re looking for a starting point, but you need a starting point that’s kind of based in truth,” Strong said. “I wanted James to be able to lift his own disbelief and see his father.
“The night before they started filming, I texted James,” Strong said. “And that was sort of a Rubicon crossing for me. There is no turning back once you are committed to what you do. And I think I was like, ‘Either he’s going to fire me or it’s going to be okay.’ And he didn’t fire me.”
Gray was also reluctant to give the young actors much background information and wanted them to discover the characters themselves.
“James gave me some very basic information before he started filming, what it was like in Queens and how Paul was acting and what music he was listening to,” said Repeta, now 14. “But other than that, James was really clear wanted to see what I could do with the role and how I could portray Paul. And then he customized it to his liking. So he saw the Paul he wanted to see.”
Webb, who plays Johnny, found the freedom Gray gave him to fill out the character particularly exciting.
“Before we started filming I was really scared because I thought I had to act a certain way like Johnny, but James, he told me I didn’t have to be specific. He’s telling us all never to put it down,” said Webb, now 16. “I wasn’t that scared, I wasn’t doubting myself just because of what James told me.”
For a pivotal scene in which Irving punches Paul — one that left Gray’s teenage children in tears, shocked at the violence their grandfather was capable of — Strong smashed down a bathroom door with startling ferocity. For a young actor like Repeta, it was a mix of feelings.
“As Banks, I was excited and knew everything would be safe and that was a new experience for me,” Repeta said. “It was really incredible to be there that day because the excitement was so high. It was just crazy to be there. I’ve never felt uncomfortable as Banks. As Paul, I could fall into the character and be scared.”
In examining this specific time from his own childhood, Gray pondered the system around him and the responsibility he had for being a part of it. The private school he attended was also supported by the Trump family, with Donald Trump’s father Fred Trump sometimes walking the hallways and sister Maryanne Trump (played by Jessica Chastain in the film) speaking to students. The film becomes, in part, an exploration of how power and privilege work to the advantage of some and the destruction of others.
“I never wanted the story to be about that,” Gray said. “I never thought about ‘awakened’ or privilege or anything like that. But you start to realize that the scenes are becoming what they want to be. I started saying, ‘I want to make a film about myself at this time and my friendship with this kid and my grandfather,’ and I managed to come out like that.”
Some critics have criticized the film’s portrayal of Johnny: only once do viewers see his life removed from Paul, a glimpse as he says goodbye to his grandmother to avoid the social workers who want to take him away.
“You can’t tell everyone’s story in every movie,” Gray said. “The only thing you can do is almost acknowledge that limitation and thereby make it a strength. “Raging Bull” is not about the plight of women in our society. The film is limited in that way, but that’s not a fault of Raging Bull because it’s part of the film’s lyric how the men treat the woman in it.
“I can’t presume to enter [Johnny’s] Perspectively, that would be wrong, obnoxious, weird,” Gray continued. “The only thing I could do is give a hint. So I tried. I break the angle slightly as soon as you catch a glimpse of his grandmother. That was my attempt to say, ‘We see a bit of it, but we can’t really know that side.’ … It’s accepting that limitation and saying, ‘Here’s part of the problem, you can only step into someone else’s consciousness so much.’”
Strong and Grey, who first worked together on Armageddon Time, found many similarities in their preferred working styles.
“I could see myself working with him for the rest of my life,” Strong said of Gray. “The work I’ve done on this television show over the past five or six years has given me a sense of empowerment in relation to my process, taking ownership of the role, trusting my instincts and finding a canvas for it. But I’ve never done anything like this with a filmmaker.
“James, all he cares about is the unvarnished truth and capturing lightning in a bottle,” Strong said. “It’s the most exciting mandate you can have as an actor, and it makes you brave and it makes you take risks. And he never turns that off.”
Though Armageddon Time is a departure from his recent films Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, Gray said it had less to do with the scale of the production and more to do with their sense of intimacy and emotional connection.
“What is important to you as an artist, if I may use that word? Why do you even want to do this? Why is cinema important to you?” said Grau. “And I felt like I got too caught up in things that weren’t directly related to my own experience and that I was spending a lot of time fighting for my ideas and spending a lot of time making compromises.
“And I didn’t want to compromise. sorry to say I was tired of agreeing.” Gray added. “I wanted to go back to a place where it would be my voice.”