A movie, as the old maxim goes, teaches you how to watch it. If that’s the case, then the opening scene of Armageddon Time, James Gray’s all-but-autobiographical account of his Queens childhood, is a key to the film.
It’s 1980, and we’re in a sixth grade classroom at PS 173 on the first day of school. A middle-aged teacher introduces himself as “Mr. Turkeltaub” to the room full of snickering students, nearly all of them white. He seems at first like a goofy, harmless loser. Yet as he takes roll, the seething resentment he feels toward having to spend all day with these children starts to build — enough that our protagonist, a gangly boy named Paul (Banks Repeta) with a head of auburn curls, can tell.
But this first scene tells us more about the boy sitting behind Paul, a Black student named Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) who’s repeating the grade, which means Mr. Turkeltaub already has a beef with him. “Animal,” Turkeltaub says under his breath when Johnny says something fresh.
Paul looks over his shoulder at Johnny and sees someone interesting, and they become friends. But that first scene sets out the terms of the world in which Paul (a stand-in for Gray) was living: a city where students like Johnny were being bussed into his district to attend his school, where adults in responsible seats of authority admonish kids to be respectful but feel empowered, even righteous, in muttering racist and abusive remarks toward their vulnerable charges. It’s a mixed set of signals to send a kid, and kids like Paul were getting those signals all the time.
Armageddon Time is Gray’s attempt to wrestle through those mixed signals, to dredge up memories and make sense of them through adult eyes. As anyone who’s been through therapy or in a relationship or attained a certain self-awareness knows, the things that happen to you in your formative years may remain unprocessed for a long time, quietly festering until something brings them up. What you may find there is often confusing and unsettling. From the vantage point of adulthood, memories that once felt easy, rosy, and happy can turn ambiguous.
Gray’s movie shares a name with a song originally recorded by reggae singer Willi Williams in 1977, then covered by The Clash as a B-side for their 1979 single “London Calling.” (In the song, it’s rendered as “Armagideon time.”) The Clash’s version pops up on the movie’s soundtrack, so it’s certainly intentional, and the lyrics for the song are foreboding, each tied up with the movie’s themes:
A lotta people won’t get no supper tonight
A lotta people won’t get no justice tonight
The battle is getting hotter
In this iration, Armagideon time
A lotta people running and hiding tonight
A lotta people won’t get no justice tonight
Remember to kick it over
No one will guide you, Armagideon time.
The name “Armageddon” refers to the prophesied final battle between good and evil before the ultimate judgment day at the end of the world. So you can see what Williams and The Clash and Gray are all getting at. 1980 is an inflection point, in Paul’s life and the country he lives in, too; the film spans the few months from the start of school to the election of Ronald Reagan, who speaks on the campaign trail about how “we might be the generation that sees Armageddon.” In those two months, Paul runs smack into reality, and not in a pleasant way. Not everyone gets the kind of life he has, with a house and a family and dinner on the table at night, with fairness and a future for everyone. The world is uglier than he’d realized.
His family knew it was ugly; the Graff family is Jewish, descended from European Jews who survived the Holocaust. His beloved paternal grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) emigrated to the US as a boy from Europe, and tells Paul stories of his own mother fleeing from the people who wanted to kill her, stories that Paul must have heard already but now on the cusp of adolescence seems to be hearing with fresh ears. His mother (Anne Hathaway) and father (Jeremy Strong) are too young to remember any of it directly, but their lives are lived with keen awareness of social precarity. They know antisemitism; their last name once was Grasserstein. They know their acceptance into a world previously largely reserved for whites — elite schools, elite institutions — is just a generation away from its profound opposite.
And this being 1980, they’re also tolerant — not inclusive, exactly, but tolerant — of “those kids” being bussed into their son’s school. They object when older members of the family say baldly racist things. They watch their language, and if you asked them, they’d insist they aren’t racists. But Armageddon Time ripples across their presumption that the school is bad for Paul because of the Black students, that a Black boy is an inherently dangerous friend for Paul to have, and that only by putting their son into a school populated by wealthy white students will his behavior and prospects change.
This is the hard thing about real people: They don’t make sense. Your parents can teach tolerance in one breath and say something terrible in the next. They can love you, and also let their tempers fly so explosively that you find yourself cowering in fear. You can adore your kindly grandfather, who tells you to stand up for your Black friend against racial slur-slinging bullies, and also listen when he explains it’s your job to get ahead, to climb life’s ladder no matter the cost, even if it will leave your friend behind. He “never had your advantage,” you see.
All of this is sharpened in the latter part of the film, when Paul is sent to a private academy largely funded and hovered over by Fred Trump. (Yup, that Fred Trump.) His new schoolmates casually toss around the n-word and can’t believe Paul had “one” in his house, let alone as a friend. The rhetoric at the academy — where students cheer and chant “Reagan! Reagan!” to Paul’s fascinated horror — is that scions of wealthy families at that school who succeed in life will have only themselves to thank, having worked hard and taken no handouts.
It’s familiar rhetoric, bleakly comedic, and its ludicrousness seems obvious in the film, especially when it comes from the mouth of a Trump. Paul’s father seems a little more aware of reality, telling his son that “some people get a raw deal, and I hate that.” But, he says, “you have to survive,” to “make the most of your break and don’t look back,” to “be thankful for your leg up.” It’s just the way the world is.
Paul’s discovery in Armageddon Time is that the world he’s known his whole life operates on a set of rules that he probably always sensed but never consciously noted until now. James Gray, on the other hand, has been living with this knowledge ever since; by showing us Paul’s simple view of things, he’s nudging us to bring an adult understanding to what Paul’s only kind of realizing in the moment. To join him in the discomfort.
So in Armageddon Time, Gray wrestles with the question of how one could be both oppressed and oppressor, behind and ahead, aware of the system’s injustice and participating in it. He methodically revisits, with what feels like mounting queasiness, the moment when he knew that he would have advantages in the world that his friend will never have, and that there’s no reason for that at all except the kind of power that comes with privilege — even though his privilege itself is immensely shaky.
Armageddon Time interrogates experience without answering the questions it raises, and that might be its greatest strength. You don’t think about your childhood memories in order to extract moral lessons from them. The best you can do is look back at them with a new set of eyes. It’s possible to understand both why your parents did something you now find objectionable — usually, because they were afraid, of everyone and everything, of the precarious world turning dangerous on a dime — and how they were cogs in a system bigger than themselves. Yet you can’t pretend they don’t bear moral culpability, that their memory will always be shaded by what they failed to do right. Some day, ours will be, too.
Armageddon Time is playing in theaters.