Recently, we have almost had a real invasion of autobiographical or semi-autobiographical films, which some more or less famous American filmmakers decide to shoot. All of them seem to want to make their own “Amarcord”, and the caliber of the incomparable Federico Fellini is definitely not the middle-generation American filmmaker James Gray. He introduced himself in the mid-90s with the crime film “Little Odessa”, and later he mainly shot genre films, so that his space “Apocalypse Today” or “Ad Astra” with Brad Pitt also turned out somewhat average, sketchy, a bit pretentious.
Although he only recently turned fifty, Gray decided to make a film inspired by his own upbringing in Queens in the early eighties, so in “Armaggedon Time” we follow an episode in the life of a 12-year-old boy, Paul Graff. He comes from a lower-middle-class Jewish family and is close to his grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), whose mother barely escaped the pogroms in Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th century and escaped to America. Paul is one of those playful boys who look at the world with wide eyes and hopes to become an artist, and his grandfather is the only one who encourages him and supports his dreams. On the other hand, his strict father Irving (Jeremy Strong) is much more realistic and wants Paul to learn a trade like him and get an education so that he can honestly, diligently and patiently earn and feed his family, just like him.
Paul’s mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) is somewhat protective of him, and a pivotal moment for Paul will occur when he meets Johnny, a rebellious African-American boy who has failed his class at school. Although Johnny is clearly an intelligent kid who dreams of one day working for NASA, he is aware of the limitations that come from the poverty he lives in and knows that he is not one of those whose dreams can come true. School means nothing to him because he assumes that, like the vast majority of black kids from the neighborhood where he lives, his fate is predestined and that the American Dream exists for someone else.
So even though he has been listening to stories from his childhood in his home about how Jews are despised, persecuted, how nobody loves them and that they have to fight for everything on their own, only with Johnny will he realize that there are many who are in a more difficult situation. With a new friend, he will learn how he lives in a world full of injustice and prejudice, and how the socially privileged really exist. Paul will also take advantage of that privilege of being white, and that moment seems to be a kind of leitmotif of this rather sketchy and somewhat aimless film. And while the title of the film refers to a phrase uttered by the then US President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, scaring people with a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, it is completely unclear to me what the point of including members of the Trump family is.
Maybe to go along with today’s trend, even if it seemed forced and completely unnecessary, as is the case here, because after a while the family will withdraw Paul from public school and enroll him in one of those typical conservative private schools for privileged whites. And the main donor of that school is Fred Trump, the father of the former (let’s hope not the future) American president Donald, whose sister Maryanne in Jessica Chastain’s episode says something about those conservative values to those kids and, I guess, future members of that decision-making elite, and Paul simply he realizes he doesn’t want to be a part of it.