Armageddon Time Director James Gray and Stars Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb on the End of the World

Dec 26, 2022

“Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world,” sang Jeff Tweedy in the Wilco song You Never Know. There’s always a newfound tiny apocalypse for people to fear, and occasionally it’s even justified. In many ways, the world actually does end sometimes, or rather the world as one knows it. This is true no matter what political or cultural ideology one subscribes to — the election of Trump in 2016 was the end of one world for many; the election of Biden in 2020 was the end of another for others (to the extent that they refuse to believe its results).

The critically acclaimed new film Armageddon Time pinpoints a specific apocalypse in 1980, both for America and its young main characters. Paul Graff (played by Banks Repeta), a boy loosely based off writer/director James Gray, experiences the end of his own world in the movie, as both his ignorance and understanding of the world are called into question after he befriends Johnny (played by Jaylin Webb).
Ronald Reagan’s election, racism, immigration, policing, and class consciousness intertwine to form a swirling ambient backdrop to this masterful drama in which Paul, and America, come of age in different ways. Gray, Repeta, and Webb spoke with MovieWeb about Armageddon Time, the importance of family, and the fragility of democracy.

Banks Repeta on Anthony Hopkins

Focus Features

With subtlety, poignancy, and quiet humor, Gray’s film explores Paul’s childhood and his family life. His parents (played by Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) love him to pieces but are increasingly exasperated by his bad behavior. While the young boy isn’t malicious or totally obnoxious, he is a bit spoiled, failing to realize his privilege and the sacrifices his family has made for him. The only person who can get through to him is his kind, funny, but morally strong grandfather Aaron (played by a magisterial Anthony Hopkins).

Related: Armageddon Time Review: America Comes of Age in James Gray’s Triumph

“Something that’s really important to Paul is his relationship with his grandfather, Anthony Hopkins,” said Repeta. “A lot of the movie revolves around that, his love for the grandpa, and how he relies on it a lot. I think that’s important.” The scenes between Repeta and Hopkins are some of the best in the film, with Paul almost entranced by the elder, but comfortable enough to call him “my good man” as they exchange epithets and quirky conversation. Both actors harmonize beautifully here, with a naturalism that’s rare in coming-of-age movies.

Jaylin Webb on Growing Up in Armageddon Time

Focus Features

Two of the most important characters to open Paul’s mind up are his grandfather and his newfound friend Johnny. The two boys bond at school through misbehavior against a teacher they ridicule, but Paul realizes that Johnny receives much worse punishment for this, presumably because he’s Black. Johnny doesn’t have any of the privileges of Paul, living with his grandmother against the rules of Child Protective Services because of her poor health. He has passions, like music, science, and space, and a great sense of humor and kind heart, but it’s sadly clear that he will never go as far as Paul — not because of him, but because of the world.

“Johnny dreams of becoming an astronaut, and he just really wants to take care of his grandmother. She’s one of the only people he has,” said Webb, who is heartbreaking and wonderful in the role. “He’s trying to make it through the school year with Mr. Turkeltaub off his back. And then he finds Paul, and they create this amazing friendship and do crazy things. And I think that’s really when Johnny starts to open up, and you see more of him.”

Armageddon Time Plots a Course From 1980 to Now

Focus Features

It would be wrong to say that Gray ‘uses’ these characters to express deeper sociopolitical truths; they never feel used, or reduced to pawn-like narrative devices for emotional or ideological manipulation. Instead, Webb, Repeta, and the wonderful supporting cast are invitational, drawing viewers into 1980 New York and revealing little truths. There, it becomes clear that some kind of Armageddon is beginning, one of trickle-down economics where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the police arrest everyone who tries to fight it. This Armageddon is not visibly explosive — “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in The Hollow Men.

It is implosive, though, and emotionally powerful. Gray is connecting 1980 to the past few years of American politics, linking moments in order to shine a better light on each of them while also elucidate his own personality through memorable, excellent characters. The politics of the film is referenced through its music and very title, which refers to the social justice song Armagideon Time initially by Willie Williams and then The Clash.

Related: Best James Gray Movies, Ranked

“I didn’t want the title to be only about one specific thing,” said Gray. “With the title, it’s a personal Armageddon for the kids. It’s society, the beginning of a kind of potential Armageddon for the idea of democracy itself. I think we see that now. This is not a given, our democracy. The politicians constantly, in 1980, were talking about Armageddon because of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Then of course in the most pedestrian reading, I was a huge Clash fan and I listened to the song Armagideon Time over and over again.” Gray continued:

So I saw it as having multiple meanings, and not really being about only one thing, but about that feeling of threat. The pressure that you feel in an unconscious and semi-conscious way as a young person growing up, when politicians talk about Armageddon, but when the bad things happen to you, when it feels like the end of the world for you. And then of course, all the dangers that we face now.

James Gray on the Death of Democracy

Focus Features

Armageddon Time, while a heartrending character study, is very much about politics, but not in a didactic or expositional way. Its plot and characters organically lead to political thoughts and cultural contemplation, without the film ever telling you to think a certain way. Gray is an extremely intelligent and socially conscious filmmaker, someone who connects dots to create new pictures, even if he refuses to explicate any one meaning from his films.

“I resist [needing] specific political meanings of the movie on that level,” said Gray. “But what I will tell you, Ronald Reagan began his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That was the location of the Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney murders.” Gray, who is of Ukrainian-Jewish descent, is referring to three civil rights activists, a Black man, and two Jewish men, who were abducted and killed in 1964; the investigation is very loosely dramatized in the film Mississippi Burning.

Focus Features

“Reagan knew exactly what he was doing. He was weaponizing the south for himself. I think his campaign knew what he was doing. And I think it is a pretty clear line from that kind of behavior, to the egregious openness of the Trump administration’s bigotry.”

Now, I know that this is not popular, to be all political, and now everybody wants to be afraid of argument or discussion. But we’re not talking about Democrats or Republicans here. It’s fine if you’re for low taxes, and you think that will spur small businesses or whatever. That’s a different form of discourse. We are now talking about the survival of democracy itself, which is a very unique set of events right now. And I think it finds its original seeds in the weaponizing of race and class in the Reagan administration. I really believe that, and I know that some will hate that, but it’s what I see. So I can only do what I feel.

Stripping away ideology, Gray’s film is simply a captivating, heartfelt, and deeply powerful study of privilege, growth, self-awareness, and coming of age in 1980. But if you want to find the through line from then to now, comparing our apocalypses, Armageddon Time is a perfect film for you.

Produced by RT Features, MadRiver Pictures, Keep Your Head, and Spacemaker Productions, Armageddon Time will be released in theaters from Focus Features on Oct. 28th.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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