Wednesday, November 16, 2022

No One Will Guide You: ARMAGEDDON TIME

What’s ending in James Gray’s Armageddon Time is a boy’s ignorance of life’s complicated problems. Everything else—the injustice, the inequality, trickle-down Reaganism, and, above all, the wisdom to see through it—feels nearer a beginning than an end. At least it is in the fleeting ephemeral time of one mortal life. The movie is set in New York City in 1980. The late 70’s malaise sits heavily on the proceedings, like a fog that’ll only superficially lift before returning all the worse. Within it, a sweet, artistic boy is about to be caught up in a moment that’ll make him aware of the rotten, unfair systems that surround him. Less a coming-of-age story than a becoming-aware story, the boy gradually gets some glimmer of a world swamped with prejudices, and narrated by elites’ inflated sense of self-worth. One has to play the game to get ahead, his mostly well-meaning family insists. His mother (Anne Hathaway) wants to run for school board, and his father (Jeremy Strong) makes a decent living as a plumber. They want their son to have more. It’s up to his warm grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) to encourage his arts and projects, and to give him the twinkly-eyed—and sometimes contradictory—straight talk that he needs to hear. Stand up for yourself, he says. Do the right thing. Fit in when you can, but stand up when you must. Resist the prevailing cultural pressures to see wealth as power, education as utilitarian, art as a hobby, and difference as deficit. What luck this kid has such a mensch in his life. And yet, there’s always more to learn.

Here’s a movie, beguilingly low-key and yet persuasively heavy, about the ways in which a younger person discovers the world around them. It sees the innocence of a child slowly fade in the face of that dawning realization that everyone around them—parents, teachers, politicians—are just as fallible and complicated as anyone. We’re all just getting by. It’s not just a matter of figuring out how to live one’s own life, becoming one’s own person, stepping out from the comfort of a cozy familial unit to find one’s own taste in art, in music, in philosophy. It’s about testing out definitions, and becoming aware society is already drawing boundaries around one’s potential. The boy is privileged, in some ways, to cross class boundaries. His comfortable middle-class Jewish family wants to send him to a private school where he can be away from “bad influences.” Sure, they mean large class sizes, a disinterested teacher, and the pernicious potential of drugs. But also mean Black kids. And they want to give the boy a foothold in a ladder of success by getting in good with the upper-class. They disagree with Reagan—“morons from coast to coast,” the dad will quip about the Gipper’s voters—but are somehow products of his disingenuous bootstrapping spirit nonetheless. The rich WASPy folk they end up fleetingly crossing paths with are even worse in that regard (and their identities are stranger than fiction).

Gray, always a precise, classically restrained filmmaker, understands the importance of detail in making a period piece. His films, like Ellis island melodrama The Immigrant, explorers’ epic The Lost City of Z, and 70s cops-and-robbers picture We Own the Night, are rich in evocative character moments nestled in expertly-chosen mise-en-scène. He knows the irreducible complexity of a historical moment can only be glimpsed through its accumulated details, from the ways people speak, to the facets of culture around them, to the furniture and lamps and technology and clothes and toys in every corner. Armageddon Time's particular historical moment is one he’s very familiar with, as it’s a semi-autobiographical story of his own family and friends at this time. Watching it feels like walking into a memory. It has that frisson of reality, and the crystallization of small noticing, that characterizes great short stories or photographs, drawing the mind’s eye with gestures and design that are poignant, and evocative. There are whole lives lived here, and we’re lucky to glimpse them for a little while. We see a flurry of changes taking place slowly, and all at once, over family dinners and school events, as well as milestones and mistakes. This film is shot in warm, intimate shadows and chilly, autumnal public spaces, balancing the comforts of family with harsher realities slipping into the boy’s awareness. In both settings, there are often subtle shots and blocking that leave space in the frame, offering plenty of room for those dawning implications.

Here, with every detail so well-chosen, and the characters so precisely drawn, the downward pressure of the unspoken grows all the stronger. In this case, there’s added weight to the small, closely-observed story of this boy in the largely untold story of a friend he makes. This other kid, an orphaned Black boy living with his dementia-addled grandmother, is glimpsed mainly at school, and then later in quick moments in shadow or through chain-link fences. Their paths cross meaningfully, but only for a brief time. The lead boy doesn’t entirely understand the full ramifications of the friend’s troubles, or how an attempt to help will inevitably make things worse. An adult audience in 2022 can understand. We can feel the extra sadness around the edges, and fill in the negative space left just off stage, the ballast from an entire, sadder other story largely unseen. In drawing one boy’s life so sensitively and fully, watching the dawning awareness of implications beyond him, it remains frustrating and moving how the boy’s vision—and those influences around him—still can extend only so far. The story builds, not to some grand revelation, but a quiet, subtle shift in understanding. In its particulars—granular, nuanced, specific—it finds something small and sad and true.

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