There’s something so sublime about hearing Anthony Hopkins talking about how racists can’t be appeased, punctuated with a “Fuck ’em.” Though Hopkins is not the central character of Armageddon Time, he embodies the joys and sorrows present in this retro coming-of-age drama. He’s the grandpa that everybody wishes they had growing up and, perhaps, maybe the elder for the next generation.
Paul is a preteen living in 1980 New York. His family is Jewish and has high expectations for him, placated by his older brother attending private school. Against the wishes of his family, Paul attends a public school where he befriends the African-American boy Johnny. While Paul has a relatively stable home life with a progressive household income, Johnny’s life is in shambles. He’s been held back a grade, his ill grandmother looks after him, and he’s on the fast track to being a homeless criminal. And Johnny can see the headlights of that train coming to mow him over.
Rather than play the rigged game, Johnny rebels. He willingly causes trouble in the classroom just as much as Paul and the two soon connect over in-school punishments. Their love of music and fascination with space science brings them together as friends. That friendship is torn apart by a combination of family problems that forces Paul into another school and a rainbow of racism that ranges from fearful bias to brutally systemic. It’s tragic, especially for the sweetness of such scenes as them gushing about records while playing pinball or laughing while smoking weed in the school bathroom.
Paul’s influences are substantive but also flawed. Paul’s mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) is playful and caring but also deeply emotional and finds herself overwhelmed amid conflict and tragedy. Paul’s father Irving (Jeremy Strong) tries to keep Paul on track to have a job when he’s older but also feels like an outsider in how he tries to keep his head down and force Paul to fall in line. All of them operate out of fear.
Even Hopkins, for as wholesome and inspiring as he becomes, still has shreds of fear in his voice that he masks well. His past still haunts him with the horrors of fascism and how that seems to be creeping back into America, a land he once thought would be free of such terror. Realizing that terror still exists is frightening but inspiring another generation to keep fighting makes Aaron a beautiful paragon of hope.
This film is boldly blunt in its complicated depiction of the decaying American dream. Paul watches as everything he was told by the adult was a lie, listening as they speak with anger and fear about Reagan’s election. Paul even has lies pitched to him when Fred Trump and Maryanne Trump speak at his prep school, trying to force the lie that everyone presents there were the true Americans without handouts. It’s bullshit and Paul is starting to wake up and smell it.
With Paul being white and Johnny being black, it would be so easy for this type of film to turn into a white savior narrative. You can even pinpoint the moment it would’ve become when Paul is given the opportunity to stick up for Johnny. It does not go well and the racism present is not thwarted just because one white kid spoke up for someone of color. If only that were so easy but this film offers no easy answers. That being said, it is capped off with a twinge of hope about continuing to fight a racist system.
Armageddon Time is a one-two punch of childhood lessons learned the hard way and Americana issues addressed the harder way, served up with unflinching honesty. With an even mix of hope and sadness, it’s such a strong depiction of relatable family life and that does away with rose-colored nostalgia for the 1980s. Here is a film that is brilliant not for saying “look how far we’ve come” but “look how far we’ve not come.”