Writer-director James Gray brings his childhood to life in NYFF60's feature Armageddon Time. The story centers on twelve-year-old Paul, his familial chaos entering sixth grade, and the global backdrop of 1980 running up to Reagan's election.
In the press conference that followed the screening, Gray explained the complexity of telling what he described as a "ghost story." His production design team worked off Gray's memories; what his china looked like, how his father was always concerned with lights being left on, leading to the actors being lit from adjacent rooms. He admits to telling an honest story, one in which he showed himself as the shithead he was at that age. While I'm not satisfied the film has the climax it needed, it's Gray's genuine portrayal of his characters that will stick in my gut.
Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Paul's grandfather, Aaron. Hopkins nails the role with charm and grace. He is a crucial moral compass for Paul but is also part of the broader problem. Gray explains how this microcosm of one family is just relevant today, stating that one can be oppressed and still be an oppressor. This idea is never more true as we watch Paul begin to understand white privilege while simultaneously wrestling with popularity, acting out, and physical discipline.
I asked the cast to discuss their approach to the several physically confrontational scenes in the film. Anne Hathaway plays Paul's mother, Esther. She shared the importance of building a safe environment while portraying violence. Once trust existed between the cast and crew, it was easier to go to a darker place because they cared for each other like family. Jeremy Strong plays Paul's father, Irving, a contradictory man who has typical dorky dad moments but also possesses a violent temper. He acknowledged that he and young lead Banks Repeta had a safe word. Jaylin Webb, who is extraordinary as Johnny, discussed his excitement with his work in perfect child actor form, sharing that he and his fellow actors would frequently check in on his comfort level.
Let me explain why the cast's explanations became of great significance. The most successful aspect of Gray's script is the nuance in character building. These are not sugar-coated versions of people, but characters in volatile times, racially and economically. Their flaws are exponentially recognizable, regardless of the year. Armageddon Time could be happening right now. The cynical nature of history and generational trauma will have audiences' hearts in their throats, shaking their heads in shame for much of the film. Therein lies the film's strongest achievement.
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