Armageddon Time is an incredibly sobering and profound dose of Americana.
Published on November 2, 2022
Rating 4.5 /5
With so many films favoring a retro-chic allure of 1980s culture, it’s somewhat refreshing to have a more human depiction of the era present in Armageddon Time. This is a coming-of-age drama that showcases the chaos of growing up in New York during 1980. It was a difficult time. Reagan was being elected, racism was still rampant, a class divide was on the rise, and fears of nuclear war were bubbling.
This isn’t exactly the best time for the preteen American Jew Paul. He resides in a New York suburb with his working-class father Irving (Jeremy Strong) and his emotionally fragile Esther (Anne Hathaway). They have a rocky yet relatable lifestyle, where dinners with the family can dash between moments of joy and feuding. Paul doesn’t much care for his family, especially when they scrutinize him for being in public school while his annoying older brother goes to a private school. The one person Paul seems to connect with most in the family is his quirky grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins). They have the most open and charming conversations about everything from art to rockets to racism.
In school, Paul’s only friend seems to be Johnny, an African-American classmate who has woken up to the systemic racism in society. He realizes the school system has held him back and has no intention of letting him go further. His parents are gone and his grandmother can’t take care of him, as child protective services loom over him. Johnny is aware that his life is doomed and doesn’t care anymore. Given that Paul is also treated as an outsider, the two connect easily, ditching class for pinball arcades and smoking weed in the bathroom. Their friendship is frowned upon, even by Paul’s parents who appear progressive but are still a generation or two behind in their perceptions of other races.
The film never settles on just one troubling aspect of Paul’s upbringing and never makes cartoonish villains. Paul despises his father and rightly so when his dad violently assaults him for smoking weed in school. Later, however, Paul reveals that he wasn’t as accepted by his wife’s family and acts mostly out of fear to be accepted. There’s a very sobering moment where Irving speaks about lucky breaks and how he is ill-prepared to talk with his son about the cruelty of the world. There are racists in Paul’s life, but they don’t often take the form of exaggerated villains. They’re classmates and teachers who will either code their words around others or just flat-out sling racial slurs in the white company. A whiff of antisemitism is in the air and Paul’s family is all-too-familiar with where such bigoted attitudes will lead.
There’s a mixture of hope and despair in how this film goes after the American dream. This is particularly poignant in how Aaron speaks openly with Paul about his history and how he feels like the land of possibilities was more limited than he originally thought. He hasn’t given up though. When Paul relays to his grandpa about the racist kids in school, Aaron encourages Paul to fight back and never to stand for people like that. He’s experienced bigotry and is well aware that if you scratch someone who says the N-word openly you will find someone willing to be antisemitic as well. The American dream decaying amid class struggle becomes incredibly punchy when the film features Fred Trump (John Diehl) and Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) giving lectures at a prep school, speaking about how they never got handouts. They did and it’s a lie that Paul starts to realize in how he plans to live out the rest of his days.
Armageddon Time is an incredibly sobering and profound dose of Americana. There’s never an easy moment or one that doesn’t feel genuine. Perhaps the best scene is when Paul is given a chance to step up and save his friend from racism. He takes the shot but fails anyway. Later, Paul speaks with his grandpa who tells him frankly that there are going to be lots of failures but that he shouldn’t give up as the fight is worth it. What an inspiring tale.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.