“Armageddon Time,” written and directed by James Gray, is one of a number of films this season drawn from the filmmakers’ own personal experience: 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 unsparing lack of sentimentality. For all the warmth and love within the film, it is also a clear-eyed look at the characters’ failings, blind spots and missteps. Most of all Gray’s own.
“I wanted to make the anti-nostalgia movie,” said Gray.
“I don’t think totally well of myself. And I don’t think that my behavior as a 12- and a 13-year-old is entirely worthy of praise, let’s say that. And my parents did as well as they could and they were very loving people towards me in many respects, but they also failed in many key ways, as every parent does. I failed my children, I’m sure, a million times over. And I think it does us no good service to look back with only the most glowing perspective.”
The film is set in Queens, N.Y., in the fall of 1980, a tense cultural moment that includes Muhammad Ali‘s defeat by Larry Holmes, Ronald Reagan‘s election to the White House and the murder 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 keep him in line as he dreams of being an artist and spends time with a friend from his old school, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb).
As the small bits of trouble they get into together escalate, Paul concocts a scheme for him and Johnny to steal a computer from his new school and run away to Florida. When they are caught, Paul’s father gets him out of trouble with the police, while Johnny, who is Black and has been living with his ailing grandmother, has no one to aid or support him.
“It’s not a documentary, but it’s pretty close,” said Gray. “When actors get involved and production designers get involved and cinematographers get involved, it becomes a fantasia almost necessarily. I didn’t play fast and loose with many facts at all.
“I didn’t want it just to be autobiographical. I wanted it to be personal, which is much more important,” he said. “Autobiographical is I’m reciting the facts of the case. And personal means that your emotional life and what is important to you emotionally is in the work.”
When Gray found himself alone without his family in Paris in 2019 while directing the opera “The Marriage of Figaro,” he began reflecting upon his childhood. After the punishing experiences of making “The Lost City of Z,” shot in the Amazon, and “Ad Astra,” an ambitious science-fiction tale with star and producer Brad Pitt, Gray found his mind returning to the ground of his acclaimed earlier films such as “Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “We Own the Night” and “Two Lovers.”
“I had a very difficult experience on two straight movies,” said Gray, 53. “And I just wanted to rediscover my passion for the medium.” He did it, he said, by trying to “remove the barrier between myself and the work, and to make it with as much love and warmth and tenderness and a sense of loss as I possibly could muster.”
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At one point, Aaron advises Paul to stand up for people like Johnny when they are in need, to “be a mensch.” Later, though, Irving tells Paul there is nothing he can do to help his friend and he needs to look out for himself first. The contradictory messages Paul receives from the two main role models in his life form the central moral dilemma of the movie.
Gray’s parents are not around to see “Armageddon Time” for themselves. Gray’s mother, who had brain cancer, died not long after the events depicted in the film; his father died from COVID while Gray was editing it.
“It’s painful as hell,” said Gray of the timing of his father’s death. “My father never saw the movie I did. I do wonder what he would think if he saw it.”
Strong, an Emmy winner for his portrayal of the brash, troubled Kendall Roy on “Succession,” was not able to meet Gray’s father in preparing to depict him. Strong had Gray’s wife give Proust’s famed questionnaire (“What is your idea of perfect happiness?”) to Gray’s father, which produced an hours-long audio recording that became a cornerstone of his performance.
“You’re looking for a jumping-off point, but you need a jumping-off point that has its basis in truth somehow,” said Strong. “I wanted James to be able to suspend his own disbelief and see his father.
“The night before they started shooting, I sent James a voice text doing it,” said Strong. “And that was kind of crossing the Rubicon for me. There’s no turning back once you’ve committed to whatever it is you’re doing. And I guess I thought, ‘He’s either gonna fire me or it’ll be OK.’ And he didn’t fire me.”
Gray was equally reluctant to give much background information to the young actors, wanting them to discover the characters for themselves.
“James gave me some very basic information before he started filming, like what it was like in Queens and how Paul acted and what music he listened to,” said Repeta, now 14. “But besides that, James made it really clear that he wanted to see what I could do with the part and how I could portray Paul. And then he tweaked 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 in the character particularly exciting.
“Before we started filming, I was really scared because I thought I had to act like Johnny a certain way, but James, he told me that I don’t have to be accurate. He tells all of us to never nail it,” said Webb, now 16. “I didn’t feel so scared, I didn’t doubt myself just because of what James told me.”
For a central scene in which Irving beats Paul — one that left Gray’s teenage children in tears, shocked at the violence their grandfather was capable of — Strong broke down a bathroom door with startling ferocity. For a young actor such as Repeta, it brought up a mix of feelings.
“As Banks, I was excited and I knew everything was gonna be safe, and this was a new experience for me,” said Repeta. “It was really just amazing to be on there that day because the tensions were so high. It was just crazy to be there. I was never uncomfortable as Banks. As Paul I was able to drop into the character and be scared.”
In examining this specific time from his own childhood, Gray came to ruminate on the system around him and what responsibility he bore 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 halls and sister Maryanne Trump (played in the film by Jessica Chastain) delivering a speech to students. The film becomes in part an examination of how power and privilege exert themselves to the advantage of some and the destruction of others.
“I never intended for the story to be about that,” said Gray. “I never thought about ‘woke’ or privilege or anything like that. But you start realizing the scenes become what they want to be. I started out saying, ‘I wanna make a movie about myself in this time period and my friendship with this kid and my grandfather,’ and it managed to emerge that way.”
Banks Repeta plays an 11-year-old version of the writer-director James Gray in this stirring semi-autobiographical drama, also featuring Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong.
Some critics have decried the film’s depiction of Johnny: Only once do viewers see his life away from Paul, a brief glimpse as he says goodbye to his grandmother in an effort to evade the social workers who want to take him away.
“You can’t tell everybody’s story in every movie,” said Gray. “The only thing you can do is almost acknowledge that limitation and in doing so, make it a strength. ‘Raging Bull’ is not about the plight of women in our society. The film is limited in that way, but it is not a flaw of ‘Raging Bull’ because it’s part of the text of the movie, the way the men treat the women in it.
“I cannot presume to step into [Johnny’s] point of view, that would be wrong, obnoxious, weird,” Gray continued. “The only thing I could do is give a hint about it. So I tried. I break point of view slightly, once you see glimpses of his grandmother. That was me trying to say, ‘We see a little bit of it, but we cannot really know that side of it.’ ... It’s embracing that limitation, saying, ‘Here is part of the problem, you can only step into somebody else’s consciousness so much.’”
Strong and Gray, working together for the first time on “Armageddon Time,” found much that’s shared 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 been doing on this television show for the past five or six years has given me a sense of empowerment in terms of my process and taking ownership over character and trusting my instincts and having a canvas to do that on. But I haven’t done that like this with a filmmaker before.
“James, all he’s interested in is unvarnished truth and sort of catching lightning in a bottle,” said Strong. “That’s the most exciting mandate you can possibly have as an actor, and it makes you bold and it makes you take risks. And he doesn’t ever shut that down.”
Though “Armageddon Time” is a departure from his recent films “Lost City of Z” and “Ad Astra,” Gray said it has less to do with the scale of the production than its sense of intimacy and emotional connection.
“What is it that’s important to you, if I can use this word, as an artist? Why is it you want to do this to begin with? Why is cinema important to you?” said Gray. “And I felt that I had gotten too caught up in things that were not directly related to my own experience, and that I spent a lot of my time fighting for my ideas and a lot of time compromising.
“And I didn’t want to compromise. I’m sorry to say that. I was tired of agreeing.” Gray added. “I wanted to return to a place where it would be my voice completely.”
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