Armageddon Time is a « coming-of-age » movie, featuring sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) learning some of life’s hard lessons in a hard place (Queens, NY) in a hard time (the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980). One could summarize by saying highlights how sad it is to be a kid, how sad it is to be in school (two schools in this instance, one public, one private), how sad it is in an anti-semitic world to be a Jew, how said it is in a racist society to be Black (as is Paul’s only real school friend Johnny, played by Jaylin Webb), how said it is to be working-class (like Paul’s repairman father Irving, played by Jeremy Strong), how said it is to be a family (Paul’s world), and how sad it is not to have a family (Johnny’s world).
Perhaps not unlike many other sixth-grade boys on the eve of adolescence, Paul is unhappy. His bad behavior at dinner towards his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), a home economics teacher and PTA president, highlights how unpleasant and, more poignantly, incomprehensible this can be for everyone else. The one thing that seems to energize Paul is art, and he dreams of being an artist. He does, apparently, have some talent in that department, but otherwise he seems to dwell in a fantasy world, in which he believes the Beatles will soon get back together. His Black friend knows better than Paul that the deck is stacked against him, but he too has his fantasies. (He collects NASA mission patches and wants to be an astronaut.)
Paul’s parents’ solution to Paul’s problems (and his racially alarming choice of friend) is a fancy private school, paid for by his loving grandparents. Esther’s father, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), is old and wise and gentle and discerning, and he seems to be the one adult who can connect with Paul. He understands Paul’s unhappiness, but he also understands how dangerously unfair life is – especially for Jews. He encourages Paul to follow his dream, but also to live in reality – a complicated lesson to learn at any age.
Paul’s new, fancy school for upward-mobile Queens kids is portrayed as a beneficiary of Fred Trump’s patronage. (Yes, that’s Fred, the former President’s thoroughly obnoxious father.) Fred Trump and his daughter (the former President’s sister, now a federal judge) articulate in words what the entire film expresses in multiple ways. Paul learns the value of hard work and self-sufficiency, but also that the deck is stacked, the game is rigged, and who you know (and what connections you make now for the future) may matter most. For that reason alone, Paul may be better off going to the fancy private school, whether or not he is actually any happier there. (For what it’s worth, his artistic talent is also more likely to get recognized there.)
The whole movie takes place within a few, rapidly moving, autumn months – between the start of the school year and Election Day 1980. A lot happens in that short time, We get to know the characters surprisingly well. Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be somewhat more complex than we might initially have expected. That short span of time is full of harsh lessons for Paul (unsurprisingly at Johnny’s expense) about race and class, power and status, and the inescapable importance of social connections.