Before you see The Fabelmans, check out one of the best films of 2022.
There seems to be a growing need lately among several acclaimed filmmakers to reach back into their pasts and create what is, for many of them, their most personal cinematic explorations to date. Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Steven Spielberg’s upcoming The Fabelmans each see these accomplished helmers re-examine childhood and what it really means to be a child. Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I didn’t include Roma in this list, it’s because that film isn’t the child’s story, but rather that of the main protagonist and no child is a supporting player in their own life. The others, however, take aspects of childhood and show how universal of an experience that time of life can be, regardless of upbringing, era, or backyard.
While all of the current buzz this week is about The Fabelmans and what is being touted as Spielberg’s most personal effort to date, I feel the need to make the case for the seemingly already-forgotten Armageddon Time. With his trademark New York setting, muted colors, and an incredibly moving script, writer/director James Gray’s contribution to this sub-genre just may be the most telling film of the year.
Set against the backdrop of the 1980 Presidential election, Armageddon Time centers on Paul (Banks Repeta), living in Queens with his parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong), brother (Ryan Sell), and doting grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). As 6th-grade starts, Paul meets Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a young black boy in his class with whom he has an instant connection. As the weeks progress, Paul goes through a series of events that help him see the world around him in a different light.
Gray has, for the most part, always succeeded in focusing on the personal and the intimate, regardless of what kind of world his films have been set in, be it New York City nightlife or even outer space. In every Gray film, there’s always been a sharp focus on the people in the center and how they exist in the world they come from. With its working class setting, Armageddon Time‘s world is unique and familiar. How interesting that Gray should choose the end of the Jimmy Carter era as the backdrop. The time was such a tumultuous period in America where confusion and anxiety were rampant and nothing made sense, much in the way very little makes sense to our young main character.
It makes sense that we accompany Paul as he undergoes one of the most tumultuous periods of his life. From the discovery of such life lessons as familial bonds and racism in the space of a couple of months, Gray soulfully takes the young man on the kind of life-changing journey that shows the end of childhood and the mystery of what lies ahead. We see Paul ditch class, find himself in trouble with the police, get disciplined by his father, and silently question why things are the way they are. Each experience feels real, not just because of the personal way Gray has captured each moment, but because of how he makes us channel the journeys we each went on years before.
Where Armageddon Time comes most alive and almost prophetic is in the moment when Paul is forced to develop an understanding of culture and race. While his family is Jewish, they mostly hide behind their shortened last name of Graff, which his maternal grandmother (Tovah Feldshuh) says is a huge advantage after having the last name of Rabinowitz for all of her married life. Paul takes this in the way any kid his age would- listening respectfully until she’s done and then going back to his own world until the film places him in a position where he must confront the reality his grandmother is talking about.
The delight Paul’s grandmother takes in her grandson’s last name (and the many doors she’s convinced it will open for him) is squarely at odds with that of her husband, Aaron (Hopkins). Aaron is someone whose heritage has shaped him so profoundly, he can’t help but carry the past with him, especially the dark journey which brought him to America as a Jewish immigrant. While Paul knows his grandfather as a whimsical sort of figure and his biggest confidante, he sees him as a different man altogether when Aaron hears of him not standing up for Danny when he’s given a hard time because he’s black. With ferocity and love in his eyes, Aaron forcefully instructs the young boy to always defend his friend when necessary. With the dots connected, Paul is given the kind of education no schooling could ever impart. It’s the film’s defining moment, one which is handled not with heavy-handedness, but with the kind of grace and honesty Gray manages so well.
Before the film’s release, Gwyneth Paltrow, whom Gray directed in 2009’s underseen Two Lovers, booked an entire theater for an advance public screening of Armageddon Time in celebration of her former director’s latest triumph. It was another addition to the many forms of praise and applause the film has received and a much more welcome reception than most of Gray’s other efforts have enjoyed. I hate to add to the chorus of voices in the film world throwing the word “masterpiece” around whenever they see a work that floors them. Still, I can’t help but feel that it applies here. With Armageddon Time, the director has painted a world of grey filled with characters who are incredibly rich in their complexities. These are raw, real people comprised of dreams, aspirations, and deeply human flaws. There’s a truth to it all and an authenticity that brings with it the kind of true beauty that cinema was made for.