Prominently known for his meticulous formalism and classical direction, James Gray may just be one of the few remaining directors working in the American film industry who is consistently attempting to bring something new to each of his films; regardless of budget or production weight. Whether you like the man or not, there’s always some sort of beating substance to each of his films; genre emulated passion-projects which toy with the conventions of their respective toolkit of cliches and narrative structure. Ad Astra is a moving tale of intergenerational trauma, set against the backdrop of a doomed space-mission. The Lost City of Z tackles tricky conversations revolving around colonialism; set within the confines of a traditional exploration drama. There is also a pattern with his quieter features. Two Lovers and The Immigrant almost work as cinematic observations of the working class, both tackling different decades and eras of social politics and nostalgia. His latest feature entitled ‘Armageddon Time’ is yet another celebration of the working class. It’s a personal film for Gray and his Jewish-Ukranian heritage.
Set in the 1980’s within the bustling metropolitan-scapes of New York, Armageddon Time follows a series of aimless events told from the adolescent perspective of a blossoming misfit. We witness the deterioration of the nuclear family dynamic, as we observe Paul (a literal projection of Gray’s personal childhood trauma) encounter various strenuous confrontations within his social life & family life; whilst learning about the systemic injustices which surround his bustling community. Don’t worry, this isn’t Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. Even with admitted cheese sprinkled through the occasional Anthony Hopkins-approved monologue, Gray keeps nearly every scene distinctly grounded.
The performances and dialogue exude a profound level of realism. Mannerisms, accents, slang, and slurred speech punctuates the environment without ever calling for disingenuous nostalgia-bait. The same applies with the tasteful amount of cultural references featured. Gray has a rather confounding eye for the niche, as your typical pop culture throwbacks are thrown away in favour of references dedicated towards Epcot and Kandinsky. As a result, the film offers a personal touch; relishing in escapades at the Guggenheim, a run of freedom in Central Park, and quarrels within the New York underground. The film’s final sentiments, as amounted with its somewhat aimless-structure, provides profound payoff. The title of the film, a reference to Reagan hysteria, is in many retrospects a call-back to Gray’s final conclusive statement.
The armageddon in question is the plight of assimilation; a continuous battle between identity and youth. No matter how our young protagonist Paul attempts at aiding his closest friend, nor preventing the forced integration of private-school routine; the conflict within Armageddon Time revolves around the young child’s own personal acceptance of his place in the world. Gray rarely saturates nor diminishes the ugly truth behind assimilation — a burden carried through decades of anti-semitism and trauma. The end-product is a personal semi-autobiographical tragedy, a deeply moving illumination on class-status and social hierarchy told with efficient simplicity and pace.