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Review: 'Armageddon Time' is just James Gray's self-serving, distorted childhood memoir

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Jaylin Webb and Banks Repeta in “Armageddon Time.” Photo: Focus Features/TNS

Going into “Armageddon Time,” I had no interest in James Gray’s childhood. But that was to be expected. What I didn’t expect was to have even less interest going out.

Gray tells a lightly fictionalized autobiographical story about a 12-year-old boy growing up in 1980. As in Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” Gray attempts to capture the essence of an era through the story of a family, as told through a boy’s eyes . But Gray has two problems that Branagh didn’t: 1) Gray doesn’t really understand the era; and 2) The character of the boy is singularly unappealing.

Young Paul Graff is not the kind of kid that only a mother could love. He’s worse. He’s the kind of kid that only a director could love, looking back through the years and saying, “That was me!”

Paul steals money from his struggling family. He challenges and disrespects his parents. He’s disruptive in school. Casting the cherubic Banks Repeta (“The Black Phone“) as Paul doesn’t help, but it does give us an idea of ​​how Gray sees him — as adorable all the same.

In school, Paul’s best friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), is Black, and there’s something so self-conscious in the presentation of that friendship here that one gets the feeling that the movie actually wants credit for that — as if the race of his childhood pal were some weight for us to measure in the balance of Paul’s character.

Certainly, much is made of this friendship. Gray presents it as something pristine and lovely, and the boy actors seem to have been directed to smile beatifically at each other whenever no adults are around.

The adults who want to separate them are portrayed as awful and unconsciously racist, yet looking at the friendship from the outside, it’s pretty clear that these boys are not good for each other. They egg each other on. For instance, Johnny introduces Paul to marijuana (at age 12, in 1980; that’s pretty intense) and they encourage each other to steal.

In one scene, the boys steal a word processor, a clear reference to Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) in which the young hero steals a typewriter. Like a lot of things in “Armageddon Time,” something doesn’t feel right about this. Gray may have intended it as a tribute, but it comes off as hubristic, as an assertion that Gray has made a work of art on the scale of Truffaut’s classic.

Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins in “Armageddon Time.” Photo: Anne Joyce/TNS

Gray is right about one thing. He correctly remembers 1980 as a time of great anxiety, but instead of locating the cause of this anxiety — in the gas crisis, the 52 Americans being held hostage in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and out-of-control inflation — he blames the election of Ronald Reagan. “There’s going to be a nuclear war,” he shows Paul’s mother (Anne Hathaway) intoning sagely on election night.

Remarkably, it doesn’t seem to enter Gray’s calculus that there was no nuclear war during Reagan’s two terms in office, and that the world situation was, in fact, a lot more stable and safe those eight years later. Gray is so wedded to his distorted vision of events that he even brings on as minor characters Fred Trump (John Diehl) and his jurist daughter, Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) — father and sister of Donald — as avatars of the coming era.

In this way, “Armageddon Time” is a movie at cross purposes, blissfully clinging to a misunderstanding of the period it portrays and oblivious to how its central character is being perceived. Against this backdrop, it’s hardly worth mentioning — except that it deserves mention — that Anthony Hopkins, as Paul’s grandfather, is utterly lovely in this film, with much feeling and thought crossing his face that doesn’t ever need to be spoken. If Gray had a grandfather like this, he’s a lucky man.

K“Armageddon Times”: Drama. Starring Banks Repeta, Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins and Jaylin Webb. Directed by James Gray. (R. 115 mins.) In theaters Friday, Nov. 4.



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