In the months since James Gray’s Armageddon Time premiered in Cannes and was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, some critics have taken Gray to task for his treatment of Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black sixth-grader and the best friend of Paul (Banks Repeta), a stand-in for the red-haired Jewish boy Gray was in the autumn of 1980. The kids are pranksters, and when they get into serious trouble, Paul is sent off to a private school. And Johnny? “I don’t toss him away,” Gray tells Ben Kenigsberg in the New York Times. “You know exactly what happens to him, and it’s horrible.”
Gray has meticulously reconstructed the New York of his youth, drawing from childhood photos, his own memories, and those of his brother and a teacher he’s still close to. Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway have won plaudits for their performances as Paul’s parents, hard-working liberals who harbor private prejudices, and Anthony Hopkins has charmed reviewers with his portrayal of the warm and wise grandfather. “Yet Johnny, the person most egregiously wronged,” writes Melissa Anderson at 4Columns, “is mainly a phantom presence here, one whose primary function is to serve as an instrument in Paul’s—and, by extension, the audience’s—moral education.”
At Mashable, Robert Daniels argues that Gray’s “white guilt manifesto” is “accidentally a metaphor for how little politically moderate white folks, in general, have actually reckoned with their part in the contemporary anti-Black rise of Trumpian rhetoric.” In cinematographer Darius Khondji’s “privileged lighting,” Paul’s “pale complexion and ginger hair glow in the warm autumnal sun; conversely, Johnny’s skin is zapped of all vibrancy and radiance, whittling down his personhood.” Khondji’s “distant framing and the editing by Scott Morris of the climactic sequence of Paul and Johnny’s downfall are similarly calculated to the nauseating effect of us experiencing the panic endured by Paul, rather than the emotions felt by Johnny.”
Others see that effect as a conscious and purposeful decision. “Is Johnny the latest of cinema’s many Black sacrificial lambs, someone who suffers grievously so that a well-meaning white friend can learn a valuable lesson?” asks Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “Or could Johnny’s lack of agency—and the limitations of Paul’s perspective, and even of his empathy—in fact be the entire point in a movie that’s too pessimistic, and finally too honest, to intervene?”
Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri notes that at one point late in Armageddon Time, Gray gives the audience “an extremely brief and heartbreaking flash of [Johnny] at home with his grandmother, a moment whose dreamy brevity actually drives home the point: Paul can’t fully imagine Johnny’s life—and neither can Gray. The filmmaker grasps the limitations of his vision and has baked this awareness of his own inadequacy into the movie. Gray is telling his story and has fully reimagined his and his family’s world. But he sees that the fundamental tragedy of his story is that he failed to understand, or even think to understand, Johnny’s. The movie formally erases the young man, the way he was erased out of Paul’s life. As a result, a pall of shame hangs over the entire film.”
Armageddon Time “doesn’t give me any catharsis,” Gray tells Marshall Shaffer at Slant. “It’s not supposed to. If anything, it’s about failure. It’s about letting somebody down.” Talking to Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times, Gray notes that Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) is “not about the plight of women in our society. The film is limited in that way, but it is not a flaw of Raging Bull because it’s part of the text of the movie, the way the men treat the women in it. I cannot presume to step into [Johnny’s] point of view; that would be wrong, obnoxious, weird.” In the New York Times,A. O. Scott suggests that “one of the lessons Paul learns is that his friend’s story was never his to tell.”
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