2022 began with a major North American director (Paul Thomas Anderson) looking back over a contemporary's youthful follies (in Licorice Pizza). It draws towards a conclusion with another (James Gray) doing something similar, this time with his own childhood. (2023, meanwhile, will begin with Spielberg's semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans. This has been Covid's foremost thematic effect on the cinema: everyone's retreating, everything's retrospective.) Gray's Armageddon Time, however, isn't cosy nostalgia or personal brand enhancement so much as an instance of a filmmaker fessing up to something that has been needling him all these years; the significance of it has only come into sharper focus in this post-George Floyd moment. For Gray, read Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a dreamy sixth-grade doodler as we visit New York in the fall of 1980. Even at his most wide-eyed, Paul doesn't see race, as with many white boys of this age and this era. He enthusiastically - and a little thoughtlessly - declares disco sucks to his new Black classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb), without demonstrating much sense of what that much-bandied slogan really means. (Paul's more of a Beatles kid.) Equally, though, he has a poster of Muhammad Ali on his bedroom wall, and he mimics the fighter's mannerisms in his bedroom mirror.
Paul has been isolated from the realities of late 20th century American life by his comfortably middle-class, Jewish-Democrat household, represented by adoring mother Anne Hathaway, doting grandfather Anthony Hopkins, and practical if straitlaced pop Jeremy Strong. Yet this blinkering also ensures Paul doesn't see what goes along with race: notably, how much harsher the boys' class teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk) treats Johnny for making much the same mischief as his Caucasian pal. When Johnny, caught at an uncharacteristically low ebb, sighs "I'm just tired of taking shit from everybody", all Paul can offer by way of response is a tepid, reflexive "sorry". There's not much else he can say at this point; he doesn't understand what his friend has undergone, and what he's going through. Gray is supremely precise in his evocation of this formative moment - Reagan on the TV, murmuring darkly about nuclear war; the Sugarhill Gang on the turntable, reporting threats closer to home - in part to correct the cluelessness of his onscreen self. Yet the underlying dynamics of Armageddon Time may well seem familiar to any white viewers who went to school with Black and Asian kids even ten years later. They just didn't teach you this stuff in class. Nobody seemed to have the language to tell you about it, except the racists - and therein lay some considerable part of the problem.
The throughline is the various phases of the boys' friendship, from blithe, giggling innocence to bafflement on Paul's part as Johnny turns (in retrospect, justifiably) sullen, and then towards a painful rupture as the movie's authority figures intervene. Yet Gray's famously unflashy, classical filmmaking seems to become even more self-effacing as it goes along, aware as the director surely is that he has a version of himself front and centre. He's far more present in this script, with its casually scattered barbs: words to lodge in a boy's mind and soul. What the writing is especially sharp on is context; you sense Gray has chosen to dig out and re-examine these memories to see what there was significant, revealing and invisible to him as an eleven-year-old. We see it around the Graff dinner table, attuned as the extended family is to any hint of anti-Semitism, blind or indifferent though they are to other prejudices; and there again at a private school speech day visit by none other than Maryanne Trump, priming her family's privileged base (a skilfully chilly cameo from Jessica Chastain, weaponising her hauteur); and in some telling, often poignant smaller details, such as the way Webb's haunting Johnny gets stuck in the same fraying outfit after a while.
A lot of Armageddon Time, then, is subtext; there are few outright dramatic fireworks. Darius Khondji lends the film a mournfully elegant autumnal palette, suggesting the return to school, hints of frost, that playtime is over; the whole can only leave you with harsh life experience to wrestle with and pick over on your way back to reality. But those subtexts are beautifully mined and brought into the light by this ensemble - Hopkins and Hathaway in particular - and in a way you may have no longer thought possible in American studio filmmaking. This is Gray trying to show what he didn't spot at the time, and in a manner that still wouldn't be immediately obvious to a cloistered young white boy - a fundamentally adult endeavour, in other words, the kind of stocktaking or autocritique any conscientious citizen has to undertake from time to time. Late on, Paul's father tells him "we got very, very lucky", one of several lines here that function on multiple levels of meaning; we instantly grasp that, at a formative moment, the movie's primary point of identification got to play a card that wasn't available to others around him. Gray sees it now, of course, yet it stings and it hurts more than it reassures. We see it now, too. It stings and it hurts no less for us.
Armageddon Time is now playing in selected cinemas.