I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started this one. I had watched the trailer a while back and it didn’t really excite me. Reviews have been generally positive but not glowing. Awards analysts have had this one circled for a while. When I got to my seat I had the whole theater to myself, one of the favorite feelings in the world. Over the next two hours I was thoroughly surprised by what followed.
Armageddon Time is a coming of age story following Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) as he starts middle school in 1980 New York. An aspiring artist, Paul struggles in school but befriends Jonny (Jaylin Webb), a black student repeating the sixth grade who is a constantly targeted by their teacher. Paul and Jonny quickly become a pair constantly getting into trouble, much to the dismay of his parents Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong). While he struggles to gain the approval of his hot-headed parents he leans on his relationship with his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins).
The film takes a look at almost every kind of ism under the sun. Racism. Antisemitism. Classism. While it doesn’t necessarily say anything groundbreaking and is often predictable its message is clear and well executed. Often time I found myself frustrated with the film because watching Paul constantly making wrong decisions though watching him realize the weight of his mistakes, particularly in the final act, lead to some of the most powerful moments of the film.
This is certainly a performance driven film. Strong, Hathaway, and Hopkins carry the film from their supporting roles. Hopkins makes Aaron feel like the grandpa we all wish we had. Hathaway nails the role of a mother constantly pushing for the best for her son only to be constantly disappointed by him. But for me it’s Strong that stands out as the highlight of the film. As Irving he plays a plumber who clearly loves his family but his light switch temper leaves Paul in a constant state of fear while he’s at home. It’s a role very different from what we’ve seen from Strong, much more explosive than what we’ve seen on Succession and more of a subtle transformation than his work in The Trial of the Chicago 7. One scene in the middle will be hard to watch for some but Strong’s performance will resonate with you long after the movie ends.
The film takes a little while to get moving, the first act in particular. The family dynamic reminded me of last year’s Belfast, though not as endearing but the parallels are there, Paul and Aaron’s relationship in particular. There’s some fat to trim but the film’s hour-55 minute runtime feels appropriate, thanks in part to a strong final act. I do wish we could have got more from Hathaway, whose screen time evaporates in the back half of the film. It’s probably her best work since 2014’s Interstellar and it’s a shame we don’t see more of her. Not a spoiler but the film also features one of the strangest cameos from a recent Academy Award winner.
I expect this film to compete is several categories come awards season. Strong or Hopkins should be considered for Supporting Actor. The Academy loves Hopkins but Strong (pardon the pun) has a much stronger performance. Hathaway should be in the Supporting Actress race but I’m curious if she’ll be campaigned as a lead, she does have top billing for the film after all. James Gray’s writing should also be considered for Original Screenplay though I’d be shocked if he worked his way into the Best Director race. The film could be in the Best Picture race though its hard to think it will do anything more than a nomination.
Overall I’d say this film was worth watching though I won’t say you need to drop what you’re doing and go see it. Again, it starts slow and is often too predictable but Gray gets the most out of his cast. The ending will likely resonate with you and you may even relate to some of the characters as it does a great job of telling a family story without pulling any punches.
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