In any profile you read or listen to with James Gray, the sincerity reigns true about his passions. As a craftsman that’s been working as a filmmaker since the 1990s, Gray is now a staple of the art world and a veteran of the profession. While his settings can range from his own personal stomping grounds to international terrain to even intergalactic expeditions, the clear and penetrating humanity that is on display with each outing grows heavier and heavier, so when it was announced that “Armageddon Time” would be a semi-autobiographical story about a critical point in Gray’s own childhood, it felt like both an inevitability and a slam dunk.
And then as the casting choices for his newest film slowly started to trickle out, anticipation only grew and grew. He’s never short on pulling great performances from established actors and actresses (he resurrected my own opinion on Charlie Hunnam in “The Lost City of Z”) so to see the ensemble grouping of Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong and Anthony Hopkins was a signal that I should create an empty spot in my calendar for the moment I was able to get my hands on “Armageddon Time.”
So, anticipation was high. Monumental, to say the least. Did it deliver on these hopes? For the most part, “Armageddon Time” certainly does and continues the winning streak for Gray. It isn’t nearly as ambitious as his previous two films (“The Lost City of Z” being a decades-spanning, inward-focused dissection of ambition itself, and “Ad Astra” taking visionary filmmaking to new heights), but it carries every bit of the heart and weight his films generally offer.
It’s as if Gray looks at the landscape of current auteur filmmaking and decides he wants to follow in the footsteps of his contemporaries but make a film that punches one notch deeper and lasts with you for weeks longer. I adored Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” – but neither of these films, or ones in the same self-indulgent nature, manage to overshadow their own stylistic ambition with rich context about humility and enduring. I’m stoked to lay my eyes on Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” but the pressure only grows higher after sinking into “Armageddon Time.”
Like many films that center on children growing up, the actor or actress chosen to carry the burden of the film contributes to or diminishes the quality of the film immensely. In the case of “Armageddon Time,” not only do Banks Repeta (as Paul Graff) and Jaylin Webb (as Johnny Davis) hold their own, they elevate the scenes that generally center around their own personal connection. Gray’s scripts usually carry a handful of weightier set pieces, and both Repeta and Webb prove they are capable of working with the best.
Every theme packed within this film’s runtime is effectively handled. The American dream on paper sounds beautiful and utopian, but the means to which middle class Americans have to go to get there are tragic. The class divide is as textured and layered as they are in other modern classics – “Parasite” came to mind numerous times throughout due to its pinpoint commentary on fighting your own to gain a leg up. Racism is a semi-regular topic throughout, but it isn’t battered constantly in a way meant to enrage a viewer from the film’s opening to closing credits.
But the most notable theme that flows through smoothly is the bond of family and the toll that actions take on those around you. Anthony Hopkins is the soul of “Armageddon Time,” and every monologue he’s tasked with stands as some of the best moments on film this year. Perhaps one of the best aspects of Gray’s script is the lifelike connections family members have. Hathaway and Strong (as the Graff parents) are contentious at times, and empathetic at others. Outside pressures can strain a family, and Gray is unflinching at showing the flaws his family members had from his own recollections.
After only one viewing, it’s tough to say where Gray landed with this one in his own filmography. It’s obviously his most personal project, but also one of his most deeply resonating ones. He’s on a hot streak very few people have been on in the industry in quite some time. He’s been outspoken about the disservices that production and distribution companies have performed by backing one genre of filmmaking so heavily compared to others (specifically Marvel and other superhero entities) and it seems he’s on a solo mission to restore balance to the industry – one film at a time.
‘Armageddon Time’ Verdict
“Armageddon Time” delivers on the humility and humanity that comes with nearly every James Gray film. Combine that with an ensemble cast for the ages, and a healthy bit of film grain and aesthetic flourish, and you get one of the year’s best releases. Many films leave your consciousness soon after you finish your screening, but not this one. This one will last.