After his brilliant space adventure Ad Astra in 2019, James Gray has come heavily back to Earth. This slightly laborious and self-consciously acted family coming-of-age drama features some perfunctory plot resolutions, and dinner-theatre performances from its all-star cast, including Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway.
It is set in Queens, New York in 1980 – the time in which US presidential candidate Ronald Reagan solemnly announced that the US was facing a moral “Armageddon”.
But more to the point, Queens is, in 1980, the heartland of the increasingly wealthy and influential Trump family, to whom oblique references are made: Fred Trump (Donald’s dad, played by John Diehl) makes an appearance as does US judge Maryanne Trump (Donald’s sister, played in a steely cameo by Jessica Chastain). But not Donald himself.
Banks Repeta plays Paul, a sensitive, creative kid from a hardworking Ukrainian Jewish-descended family: dad Irving (Jeremy Strong) is a careworn, quick-tempered paterfamilias who has done well in the plumbing business: mum Esther (Anne Hathaway) is president of the parent-teacher association at the public (ie, state) school that Paul attends. Irving can only afford one set of school fees, so Paul’s wise-ass elder brother, Ted (Ryan Sell) gets to go to the elitist private institution favoured by the Trump family. And grandad Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), who brought his family from the old country to the US via Liverpool, is a great pal of Paul’s.
Paul is keen on art. He is dreamy and inattentive in lessons and has nascent class-clown tendencies, like his natural friend and ally Johnny (Jaylin Webb) – a smart kid who, because he is black, gets into way more trouble than Paul – despite doing pretty much the same things. When Paul and Johnny are caught smoking a joint in the boys’ toilets, Irving gives Paul an old-fashioned, quasi-Goodfellas beating with a belt, and he and Esther decide they just have to find the money to send Paul to the same posh school that Ted goes to, with all its snobs and racists. And so the awful, gradual betrayal of Johnny is under way.
In some ways, Paul’s boyhood in Armageddon Time shows us a quasi-Trump, a kid who was brought up around the same time (a little later), from a comparable background facing comparable pressures, but who didn’t become the same guy – or not quite the same guy. Paul does, after all, wind up going to the top Trump school and, sadly, lets Johnny take the rap for some wrongdoing: Paul can use his privilege as a get-out-of-jail-free card. His grandpa tells him always to call out and confront the bigots at that preppy school and this is an emotional moment for them both. But Paul is not shown carrying that through and just starts to fit in at the new school. Maybe the point is that muddled, unhappy, well-meaning Paul could well be a Trump voter a few decades down the line.
Gray has given us tough, sinewy and memorable New York movies in the past such as The Yards and We Own the Night, but this is weighed down with a sentimental and self-regarding staginess.