DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. After telling stories set in the South American jungle in "The Lost City Of Z" and in outer space in "Ad Astra," the writer-director James Gray returns home to his New York roots with his new movie "Armageddon Time." The film, which opens in theaters this week, is based on events from his 1980s childhood in Flushing, Queens, and features performances by Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong and Anthony Hopkins. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: A lot of filmmakers these days seem to be in an intensely personal, self-reflective mood. There's a terrific movie in theaters right now called "Aftersun," and it's based on the childhood memories of its first-time director, Charlotte Wells. Several upcoming films, like Steven Spielberg's "The Fabelmans" and "Bardo" from Alejandro G. Inarritu, are also drawn from their filmmaker's life experiences.
"Armageddon Time," the latest movie written and directed by James Gray, is an especially thoughtful and moving example. While it's a loving recreation of a time and place Gray knows well - some of it was shot just blocks away from his childhood home in Queens - the director has more than a rosy nostalgia trip in mind. He's made an uncommonly tough-minded movie about race, class, assimilation and white privilege in America. And while it takes place in 1980, a few months before the election of Ronald Reagan, it has nearly as much to say about the present.
The story follows Paul Graff, an 11-year-old version of Gray, played by a wide-eyed young actor named Banks Repeta. Paul wants to be an artist when he grows up. He's also a bit of a class clown at his public school, where his best friend is a Black classmate named Johnny, played by Jaylin Webb. They have fun hanging out and goofing off, and they take turns sticking up for each other when they get in trouble, which is often. But as Paul soon notices, it's Johnny who always gets the more severe punishment. He also knows that Johnny is poor and lives with his grandmother. That places him in stark contrast with Paul and his comfortably middle-class Jewish family.
Gray does a wonderful job of immersing us in the everyday bustle of the Graffs' home, where relatives are always coming over for dinner, none more beloved than Paul's grandfather, affectionately played by Anthony Hopkins. Jeremy Strong is terrific - and very un-Kendall Roy-like - as Paul's father, a plumber with a big heart and a fierce temper. Anne Hathaway does her finest acting in some time as Paul's gentler but more resilient mother. At one point, Paul's parents decide to send him to a fancy private school, where he has to obey much stricter rules and wear a coat and tie every day.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARMAGEDDON TIME")
JEREMY STRONG: (As Irving Graff) Oh, look at you.
ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Esther Graff) Come here.
STRONG: (As Irving Graff) Look at you...
HATHAWAY: (As Esther Graff) Oh.
STRONG: (As Irving Graff) ...A young man - first day of the rest of your life.
HATHAWAY: (As Esther Graff) You look...
BANKS REPETA: (As Paul Graff) Blegh.
HATHAWAY: (As Esther Graff) ...Absolutely gorgeous. Blegh.
REPETA: (As Paul Graff) I look like a total idiot.
HATHAWAY: (As Esther Graff) No. You don't.
REPETA: (As Paul Graff) I can't even have a normal knapsack.
STRONG: (As Irving Graff) A normal knapsack? Why would you want a normal knapsack when you can have this? This is an attache case. This is class A one. This says, I am ready to work. I come as a student.
REPETA: (As Paul Graff) You just want me to be like you.
STRONG: (As Irving Graff) What?
REPETA: (As Paul Graff) You just want me to be like you.
STRONG: (As Irving Graff) No. No, big boy. I want you to be a whole lot better than me. That's what I want.
CHANG: Like any good parents, Paul's mom and dad only want what's best for him. They've worked hard to make a good living and earn a level of social standing in their community. Given their Jewish immigrant roots, they also know the challenges of assimilating into American culture. At extended gatherings, Paul's relatives share grim stories about the antisemitic violence their family fled from in Ukraine. But Gray also doesn't shy away from exposing their own casual prejudice. We also hear some of those same relatives spout derogatory remarks about Black people around the dinner table.
It's been a while since I've seen a movie that captured family dynamics with this much unsparing honesty. It's also been a while since I've seen a Hollywood movie with such a layered understanding of how white supremacy pits people of different backgrounds against each other. That's a concept that feels painfully resonant now in a moment of heightened antisemitism and anti-Black racism. And just to make the present-day parallels obvious, Gray throws in a sharp jab at the Trump family, a major presence at Paul's private school.
At its heart, though, "Armageddon Time" is about Paul and Johnny's friendship and how that friendship tragically changes. It's here that things get a little tricky. Some might see Johnny as a regrettable stereotype, the Black character who suffers grievously so that his white friend can learn a hard-hitting lesson. But I think that reading may be too easy, partly because the film is all about the limitations of Paul's perspective and partly because Gray has no interest in dispensing reassurance or uplift. He's made an angry, despairing movie about one boy's disillusionment with the injustice of the world and his own silent complicity with it. What makes "Armageddon Time" so powerful is that Gray reserves his harshest anger for himself.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic of the LA Times. He reviewed James Gray's new film, "Armageddon Time."
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BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, for Halloween, creating some of the scariest characters from the movies. Anthony Hopkins tells us about finding the voice of the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in "Silence Of The Lambs." And Mercedes McCambridge demonstrates how she created the odious voice of the devil in "The Exorcist." It's creepy. Hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.