Yikes! The on-going crisis in cinema is currently being exasperated by the gnomic world-view of top directors; right now, when audiences require luring back to the big screen, director after director seems content to look backwards and tell the inessential story of how they got here. This ‘ladies and gentlemen, this is ME!’ kind of film-making usually seems self-indulgent to the general public, but at a time when we need to cast a look at a wider world, films like Armageddon Time feel rather dramatically out of step.
Last seen making Ad Astra, James Gray isn’t just any director, and despite a title that sounds more like some kind of disaster movie cliché (That’s Armageddon!) takes inspiration from a Clash song and settles for a coming-of-age tale set back in the 80’s of Ronald Reagan. Paul Graff (Banks Chepeta) is growing up in Queens, keen to experience the world outside his door. His parents (Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway) are hard-working and nurturing if tempremental; she’s on the PTA, so Paul’s run of bad behaviour leads them to send him to a private school they can barely afford, where Paul listens to the inspiring words of local businessman Fred Trump (John Diehl) and his daughter Mary-Anne (Jessica Chastain). Paul wants to stay friends with his fellow student Johnny (Jaylin Webb) but pressures mount; can aging patriarch, wise-old-bird and Paul’s grandfather Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins) show Paul a way forward?
Politically, Armageddon Time promises a lot, but while there are likely to be dozens of films made about the disgraced former president Trump, this isn’t one of the more involved; there’s only a couple of scenes which involve the Trump family although it’s easy to see where the film stands on them. ‘Never forget the past because one day, it will come for you,’ says Aaron…’never give in to these bastards.’ With an actor like Hopkins involved, Paul’s journey isn’t a dull one; trips to the Guggenheim for an elaborate fantasy sequence, or his dad’s recommendation of the writings of Edward de Bono also help us understand where Paul’s head is at. But although Rapper’s Delight still sounds sweet today, Gray seems too intent on drilling down on a specific personal memory viewed from the hindsight of now; ‘I hear they might get back together soon’ says Paul of the Beatles, and while the audience can certainly draw a firm timeline, such dialogue feels precocious and too-knowingly self-aware.
Armageddon Time might have seemed more prescient in pre-pandemic times; despite being reasonably clear-eyed and detailed, this eventually qualifies as self-indulgent nostalgia. Warnings about Trump are a good six years too late to be useful to anyone, and while Gray picks up a familiar moral when Aaron advises that others ‘never had your advantage’, this doesn’t play like Fitzgerald or Salinger, but just another director whose understanding doesn’t seem to extend much further than their own, cossetted experience. We need heroes right now, and Armageddon Time’s sturdy consideration of 80’s morals feels too staid and polemic to firmly land with many.