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Bright Wall/Dark Room February 2023: The Unflattering Portrait: On Armageddon Time and Failed Solidarity by Nicholas Russell

We are pleased to offer an excerpt from a recent issue of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. The theme for their January issue was "The Best of 2022," and in addition to Nicholas Russell's piece below on James Gray's "Armageddon Time," the issue also features new words on "TÁR," "The Fabelmans," "Aftersun," "Top Gun: Maverick," "Elvis," "Glass Onion," "Bones and All," "Memoria," "Benediction," "Stranger Things," "Mad God," and more.

Their most recent issue has the theme of 'Sports' and features new essays and art on "Skate Kitchen," "California Split," "Downhill Racer," "Billy Elliot," "Offside," "Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off," "The Phenom," Bobby Jones' Warner Bros. Golf Instructional Films, a podcast on "Moneyball," and more. 

You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here.


It’s striking, when you listen to both versions, to note the difference in sound, tone, and especially attitude between Willi Williams’s original song “Armagideon Time” and the Clash’s cover of it. Striking most of all because both tracks were released the same year: 1979. The original—itself a continuation of a musical conversation that began with Bunny Wailer’s 1976 track “Armagideon (Armageddon)” and Winston McAnuff’s 1977 track “Armageddon Time”—incorporated the foundational Jamaican “Real Rock” riddim, a loping, head-nodding beat that strikes the snare and bass drums together. The groove is commonly attributed to producer Coxsone Dodd, though his practice of paying session players to oversee the creation of new riddims at his studio makes the actual work of attribution dicey. 

Williams’s track, or at least his most famous cut, runs around five minutes long. “Armagideon Time” is a propulsive, spare song that sounds like it’s being broadcast from the ether, Williams’s echoing vocals accompanied by bass, organ, horns, and guitar—each instrument sonically disparate, with a slight fuzz, as if every musician is in their own room nearby. “A lot of people won’t get no supper tonight / A lot of people going to suffer tonight,” Williams sings, his deadpan, conversational delivery reminiscent of Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso, a playfulness atop Williams’s depiction of politically-ignited apocalypse. This was as much influenced by the Rastafari reading of the Book of Revelations as by contemporary social upheaval. 

By contrast, the Clash play “Armagideon Time” just that much faster. Topper hits his drums harder, Mick Jones plays guitar in a more staccato rhythm; the fidelity of the track’s sound is raised higher, everything closer, more immediate. Joe Strummer removes references to Jah and religious providence and replaces them with allusions to Soviet Russia and Communist China, his slurring belt typically ragged, verging on pissed, almost taunting—an anger, a restlessness opposite Williams’s comparatively relaxed performance. The two tracks sound worlds away from one another, with virtually no parallax of familiarity between them. Which one might attribute to the fact that, beyond working in distinct genres, Williams saw a different world than the Clash, who juxtaposed “Armagideon Time” with the collective anxieties over nuclear war by pairing it with the single “London Calling.” 

In their hands, “Armagideon Time” becomes an anthem, a caution against collapse that requires the actions of people, not faith. It’s this particular detail that cements the Clash’s version as most salient, the defining revision. As Marcus Gray writes in Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling, “Joe makes a more considered alteration when he urges his listeners not to ‘praise Jahovah’ but instead to ‘kick it over.’ And where Willi promises that Jah will offer guidance, Joe the Revelator insists that no one will: his downtrodden will not only have to stand and fight for themselves, they’ll have to look within themselves for the motivation to do so.” A secular revolution has often been the dream of atheists who see religion as an extension of the ruling class, hegemony through tyranny of the spirit. It’s almost as if Strummer, by converting “Armagideon Time” into a song whose concerns are strictly terrestrial, hopes that listeners won’t be fooled into complacency by praying for the presence of a higher power to sway the outcome of history. 

And yet, Strummer and Williams, for all their differences in demeanor, are speaking to each other from opposite ends of the same struggle, the same call for political and social justice. But Williams looks out to a broader view, one that doesn’t reject the possibility of the holy. The work is worth doing all the more fervently because we are impermanent, because we most certainly will fail.  

*

James Gray’s Armageddon Time, set just before the election of Ronald Reagan—about a youthful friendship across racial and class divides, about shame and its separation from guilt, about the convenient lies of belonging and deservedness propagated by outgroups assimilating into white society—thrives in a mode of anticipatory skepticism. It is a semi-autobiographical film that serves as a treatise on the missed chances for solidarity present at even our most tender ages, an admonition against cowardice, and, for its writer-director, a kind of confession. 

Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a Jewish boy from a striving family clinging desperately to their middle-class status, befriends Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a Black classmate who’s been held back a year due to poor academic performance. With its opening classroom scene, Armageddon Time undermines the legitimacy of Johnny’s poor treatment. Paul and Johnny’s teacher, a beleaguered, bitter man named Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), hides none of his animosity towards Johnny, insulting his intelligence and defiant attitude with such vehemence, the audience braces for a slur that’s heavily implied, hanging like smog over the class. Both Johnny and Paul are hauled out of their seats and made to wash the blackboard, Johnny for an insignificant joke, Paul for his silly antics—namely, drawing the teacher as a turkey, in reference to his student nickname “Mr. Turkeytaub.” When Paul starts dancing behind Turkeltaub’s back to the laughter of his classmates, Turkeltaub doesn’t hesitate to assume it’s Johnny who did it: “I have eyes in the back of my head, Mr. Davis.” Here, Gray pushes the camera in on Paul, chagrin plain on his face at the added scrutiny on Johnny because of him. During gym, which they are forced to skip, Paul apologizes to Johnny, saying, “I would’ve said something…if you really got in trouble.”

The film follows this line of moral inquiry closely. What responsibility can we claim for the collateral damage of our most thoughtless actions against others? Gray, through Paul and an  unflinching depiction of his family, bares his regret openly. Paul’s father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), and mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), fulfill the archetype of well-meaning but strict Jewish parents, the same as doting grandparents Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) and Mickey Rabinowitz (Tovah Feldshuh). Meanwhile, Paul’s older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), seems to bully him at every turn. 

Over the course of Armageddon Time, and often without much preamble, Gray peels back the avowedly liberal sensibilities of Paul’s elders to expose their more recalcitrant xenophobia and racism. Gray does this concurrently with a deft portrayal of the ways some Jews weaponize their own victimization to oppress or simply avoid standing with others. In a dinner scene, Irving warns his son not to order “Ching Chang Cho food” after Paul expresses his disgust with Esther’s cooking. (The next morning, Irving will loudly wake Paul up with a rock record from Ted’s collection. Irving dances around, seemingly imitating an ape or a caricature of a Native American or African, asking himself how anyone can listen to such “oonga bunga music.”) Later, as Paul and Ted fool around at the table, the brothers begin laughing at the same time as their elderly aunt tells a story from the Holocaust, causing the elders to believe that the boys find antisemitism amusing. All this rabble and escalation is part of the everyday reality of the Graffs, a glimpse into the frisson present between generations united in ethnicity and shared oppression who nonetheless have very different relationships to that history. At bedtime, Grandpa Aaron tucks Paul in with a recollection of how Aaron’s mother escaped pogroms in Ukraine, how the family came to America, and how they changed their name, the words and imagined sounds of Aaron’s story echoing in Paul’s head as he drifts off to sleep. 

Gray situates the nearness of the Holocaust and the widespread antisemitism that extends beyond it for one generation with the assimilationist hopes and prejudices of the next. Throughout the film, Irving and Esther sublimate their fears of being seen as outsiders by constantly fretting over money and status. One night, the family drives through a nicer neighborhood to look at the houses, fantasizing about their fortunes turning. Irving urges his sons to consider growth industries for their careers, financial success as much a marker of arrival as it is of belonging. And yet, it’s implied that grandparents Aaron and Mickey are more than liquid—buying Paul art supplies, sending Ted to private school, possibly propping up Irving’s business. To what degree are Paul’s parents hiding behind their material woes? 

Often, such suburban dramas present a blurred line between greed and the achievement of the dreams of past generations, a devil’s bargain made worthwhile in the name of family. Often, the whiteness—or non-whiteness—of the characters involved is not put into question. In Armageddon Time, Gray recollects a Jewish American transition into whiteness and reiterates the harmful degree to which some sought that whiteness at the expense of anti-Black and -brown bigotry. Most notable is the way that this bigotry is offensive rather than defensive. Which is to say, nothing particularly untoward happens to Paul or the Graffs. Rather, it’s through Paul’s proximity to the supposedly amoral influence of Johnny that his parents dig in, parroting NIMBY alarmist concerns about crime and the other, the implication being that their family has worked too hard and too long to let undeserving lowlifes take their status away from them. As K. Austin Collins wrote in his Rolling Stone review, “Privilege, as this movie examines it, is really a matter of leverage. The people denied that leverage will only hold it more firmly in their grip once they finally get a taste.”

*

The limning between shame and guilt, specifically white guilt, is as key to Armageddon Time as its outlining of the limits of empathy. Some semantics are useful in this regard. Guilt implies responsibility, blame for an action, culpability. Shame, by contrast, is more about embarrassment and humiliation, something that results, in some ways, from a pointed lack of responsibility. Gray says as much in an interview with IndieWire:

I want to be clear about something. I do not feel guilt [about what happened to his friend]. When you’re 11 or 12, you do not have the moral or ethical foundation to grapple with a world that is unendingly complex. You are both biologically and educationally ill-equipped for such a task. I think my behavior at times was utterly disgraceful and gutless, but at the same time I don’t know what the heck else I could have done at that age. And so I don’t look at it with guilt. I look at it and say “this is warts-and-all and it’s embarrassing, but that’s what the world is and was.” 

That Armageddon Time’s protagonist is a child has led to assumptions that the film charts a white boy’s moral epiphany concerning the ills of racism. That Paul is a stand-in for Gray has furthered these criticisms with accusations that Gray is flattering himself via a cinematic depiction of his journey as a conscientious artist (the same misguided critiques that plagued Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans, released a month after Armageddon Time). To be sure, there are lessons learned in Gray’s film. The question is whether or not they amount to much for the characters. Throughout, the Graffs and their class peers wield their whiteness willingly, either in opposition to Blackness to avoid association or as a means of demonstrating overall superiority. Both are depicted as cowardly. In one scene, after Paul and Johnny are caught smoking weed in the school bathroom, Esther interrogates Paul, asking if “that Black boy” gave it to him. As she says this, a pair of students, one of them Black, passes by. Esther puts on a friendly smile and lowers her voice, the briefest glimpse of a double standard both Esther and Paul are aware of. Olivia Rosane writes in Real Life, “Since empathy is individualized and biased toward those who are more like us, it can lead to ignoring the suffering of groups, which occurs at a scale that exceeds empathy’s grasp.”

Gray constantly reiterates how these people know that what they’re doing, or not doing, is wrong. Some, like the Trumps and the snotty kids at Ted’s private school, don’t care. Others, like the Graffs, can’t see how else they can maintain, or accrue, power. Meanwhile, as Paul’s friendship with Johnny becomes strained by the former’s enforced isolation, no one accepts the possibility that power might not be the ultimate goal. Even Paul’s innocence is interrogated, less via an indictment of his actions than by his inability to understand the consequences of them. Because as much as Paul feels for Johnny, as beautiful as their friendship is, only one of them disappears into the wide maw of the prison-industrial complex. Gray plays this inevitability without tension or melodrama. Instead, he rams head-first into the issue, stopping dead at Paul’s inability to do anything to save Johnny, and the audience’s expectation that there is some kind of lesson to be learned from this. Armageddon Time is not a film about the power of one individual’s fight for justice, nor is it a hopeful film about personal enlightenment. Instead, Gray refuses to look away from his own helplessness, the immensity of the issues out of his or any individual’s control, even as he stresses that these are the very things that need to be changed. Irving and Esther fear for their son’s well-being more than they care about being upstanding citizens. To them, insularity is what being an upstanding citizen means. 

*

After the weed incident, Paul is sent to Ted’s school, which is sponsored by the Trump family. If Gray’s detractors were on the lookout for sanctimony, this part of the film is likely where they took the bait. During an assembly, Maryanne Trump, United States federal judge and sister to Donald, gives an us-vs.-them speech about the importance of struggle and overcoming obstacles. Trump is played by Jessica Chastain in a single scene that might have played for showboating didacticism elsewhere, but unsettles in Armageddon Time for its mundanity. There is no “Aha” moment here. Gray simply reminds the audience that, far before President Trump’s ubiquity as the supposed progenitor of American evil, his family was one of many wealthy dynasties inextricably integrated into the country’s financial and governmental systems of power. It’s a particularly cutting reveal given that, up until now, Paul’s grandparents have been extolling the virtues and advantages of Ted’s school, practically crying with joy when Paul finally joins him. 

Rosane continues, in an assessment of Donald that also applies to Gray’s portrayal of Maryanne: “Appeals to empathy are politically useless unless scaffolded by an accurate understanding of power. Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric against immigrants is frightening not only because it reflects a lack of empathy for people in a desperate situation, but also because he has the ability to turn that rhetoric into policy. Without that understanding to scaffold it, empathy can be mobilized to generate fellow-feeling for elites already operating from a position of strength and shield them from the consequences of their actions” (emphasis my own).

This idea comes to a head when Paul speaks to his grandfather for the last time. On a park bench, Aaron, dying of cancer unbeknownst to his grandson, asks how things are going at the new school. Paul shrugs off the question, focusing on setting up his toy rocket, a gift from Aaron. Johnny has all but disappeared, occasionally appearing outside Paul’s school to ask if they can hang out, to the withering amusement of Paul’s classmates. 

“Sometimes kids say stuff…about other kids…they’ll say bad words about the Black kids,” Paul ventures. 

Aaron asks Paul what he does about it. 

“Obviously nothing, of course,” Paul responds, a nervous smile on his face. 

In many ways, Hopkins was cast for the following performance. Bundled up in his coat, his voice gravelly and frail, Aaron doesn’t so much perk up as lose patience. The shell of the congenial elder, which, if one pays attention to Hopkins’s careful performance, has been cracking throughout, finally breaks. 

“You think that’s funny? You think that’s smart? I’ll tell you what I think, I think that’s a crock of old horseshit. I said a bad word. You got a problem with that? Tough. I’m gonna tell you now, you gotta do something. You gotta say something, okay? Do you know why? Because you’re on the ball, right! Come on, man. You were raised better than that.” Aaron urges Paul to be a mensch to the Black and Mexican students, his peers: “They never had your advantage.” 

His speech stings for what it shades in about Aaron, a patriarch beloved by all yet still reduced to his material usefulness, the urgency of what he wishes to say dashed by his family’s expectation that he will remain docile. At heart, Hopkins sees his role as a juggling act of dispositions, at once wise, silly, thoughtful, and—in this penultimate scene—furious. Fran Hoepfner, in her review of the film, brings up the phrase “Never again” invoked in Israeli poet Yitzhak Lamdan’s work: “‘Never again’ did not mean never again would the Jews stand by while a holocaust of any kind occurred, nor did it symbolize or reignite any kind of intra-class or religious solidarity between Jews and other oppressed peoples. ‘Never again’ became a short-hand for ‘never again would this happen to the Jews,’ a mentality that has often allowed persecution to occur at the hands of Jews in order to self-preserve.” Aaron rejects this shallow understanding of solidarity. In fact, he emphasizes solidarity to anyone marginalized explicitly because of his experience as a Jew: “You’re gonna be a mensch, okay?”

And yet, it’s not so simple. Because, at the same time, Aaron approves of Paul’s distance from the public education system, proudly paying for his grandson to attend the very school whose gleefully racist students he is criticizing. It’s easy to forget that each of Paul’s elders has something to gain from their silence, and in this penultimate scene with his grandfather, Paul is given something to ponder. Often during family conversations, it’s Aaron’s wife Mickey who states the unsaid—their pride in private education, in the attractive nearness of the elite, and the horrors of crowded, uncivil public school classrooms. Are there only extremes to choose between: the isolated, supposed meritocracy of the wealthy, or the ramshackle horde of the unwashed masses? For as much as Gray implicitly rails against the inelegant dichotomy between these two options, which are rarely so simple as options to begin with, there is no strict answer for Paul. The contradiction dangles and disturbs for that very reason.  

The supposed timeliness of this particular scene on the park bench, at a point when unabashed celebrity antisemitism and “just asking questions” relativity spreads wider and more freely, is nonexistent. There is no historical arrow of progress. Armageddon Time traces a line from 1980 to now and asks, with no shortage of despair, What exactly has changed?

*

It is fair to ponder what becomes of Johnny, what his role is in the narrative, how he is utilized. But that fairness doesn’t necessarily make such questioning legitimate. There have been various readings of Armageddon Time that highlight the odiousness of Johnny’s character, not in judgment against who he is or where comes from, but Gray’s inclusion of him to begin with. It’s true that Johnny is the only prominent person of color in the film and that he, a Black kid, is Paul’s friend, who is white. This kind of representational algebra, sour for its cynicism in the name of some hand-waving kind of accountability, doesn’t add up to much in the context of the film—not in Gray’s measured depiction of the blandly racist world around both kids, not in his superb tenderness for Johnny and Paul’s divergent experiences of childhood, not least in Jaylin Webb’s remarkable performance. 

Really, Armageddon Time benefits from both a textual and metatextual reading of Webb’s character, a Black boy who is neither a wellspring for the protagonist’s racial awakening nor a token diversity inclusion. Instead, Johnny is brought to full life beyond the bounds of the script. Webb imbues Johnny with a wisdom and naivety that sits atop a palpable, frustrated rage. We never see where Johnny goes after his encounters with Paul, but that life beyond the screen is felt. Gray’s choice to marshal his own creative imagination with respect to Johnny’s home life is his trickiest gamble; he does not overstep into Johnny’s interiority. As a child and even now, Gray never had such access. This sounds like a weak defense, and to even the film’s most ardent supporters, Gray slips up in this regard. But Gray is clear in the film that Johnny’s lack of inclusion as a lead character, and his truncated childhood after being arrested with Paul at the end, doesn’t deviate from the reality of his own recollection. In that way, the film bears a purposefully sharp, unsatisfying edge. Gray isn’t showing us anything new about what happens to Black boys in America, nor does he claim to be. He stands out in front of the fact that he got away, that he made it as far as he did, here, now, with this very film. It is an uncomfortable notion to sit with. 

But I’ve come around to the execution of this idea because Gray is right. What’s more, he doesn’t stop at a simple depiction of incarceration. “I gave you a glimpse of Johnny’s grandmother,” Gray said in an interview at Metrograph:

I wanted to try to have the movie say: no matter how much you try, what you think you do, you can’t see into Johnny’s world. Any more, I think, I couldn’t have gotten away with. And I tried removing that scene, and it made the movie much less. I wanted to indicate, like, you see his world, but is that Paul’s imagination of it, or is it ours? I went there once, to the home of the kid Johnny’s based on, and I tried to recreate it exactly as I saw it. But I wanted the movie to say: you can’t see that side, and you never will.

Gray’s restraint underlines the unknowability of a person, the changeability of their behaviors and beliefs, not just for Johnny but everyone in Paul’s life. Ted is a bully until he shares a fleeting, shocking moment of protectiveness over Paul before they start school together. Irving and Esther are cruel, even abusive, until they aren’t. Some of these relationships deserve more interrogation than others, but Gray’s point isn’t some centrist notion about second chances. Rather, he asserts, as writer Matthew Sitman often does on the podcast Know Your Enemy, that people deserve more than they earn. In the case of Johnny: an entirely upended world, one that sees him as whole, human; that respects his life and his capacity to grow; that doesn’t function on retribution or petty superiority. In the case of the Graffs: a chance to step back from their own fear and pecuniary shrewdness, to extend their struggle to the struggles of others. Gray doesn’t save Johnny. He can’t. If anything, Armageddon Time asks how such a rescue is possible when we can’t even look truthfully at ourselves. 

*

It was after my second time seeing Armageddon Time that I decided God was present in the film. Not in an abstract way, but plain, obvious, and fleeting. He comes at the very end, after Paul has failed to stick up for Johnny for the last time, after Reagan is elected President and his parents—the portrait of contradictory, some might say hypocritical, liberals—sit in front of the TV downstairs, clucking their tongues in disapproval. Meanwhile, upstairs in his darkened room, Paul sits at his desk before an open textbook and notebook with a renewed sense of purpose. 

It’s telling that with Willi Williams’s version of “Armagideon Time,” even as he encourages the listener to keep Jah in mind, the song sounds as if the world has already ended. This shouldn’t be discouraging, or at least I don’t take it to be. The world keeps ending, in big ways and small. And if this is true, what does that mean for the preciousness of our lives? That instead of constantly pulling ourselves back from the brink of a single, all-consuming destruction, we are forced to contend with an inevitability: that we will fail to bring about the utopian change we wish to see in our own lifetimes? And finally, crucially, when failure does come, and it hurts people we care about, does that mean giving up? 

I keep coming back to the cynical notion that Armageddon Time is a moralizing, didactic finger-wag. I suspect that Gray’s film was so objectionable to some in part due to the fact that it is not didactic at all. That apart from its moral certainty (as opposed to bland, virtue-signaling obviousness), there is no scene in which Armageddon Time is speaking directly to its audience about what should be done. The opposite is true: it is a film about what wasn’t done, about a child’s dawning horror at the plethora of opportunities he has to put himself at risk for someone else, his family’s justifications for their cowardly insularity, and the heartbreaking fact that Paul realizes all of this too late, and so does nothing. In short, there is an absence of solidarity, and, concurrently, an absence of melodramatic rage.

Instead, Armageddon Time ends silently, with a series of decisions—and, on the part of Paul’s father, societal excuses—about some people being unluckier than others. “I hate that,” Irving says to Paul in the car after they’ve come home from the city jail. It’s the first time we hear Paul’s father say anything that indicates his awareness of his son’s uncomfortable conscience, of the hard, callous way that he’s acted, which everyone in their family, except for Grandpa Aaron, has made excuses for. Paul’s father gives this admission at the very end, after his speaking up could have been practical rather than hypothetical, and he does so in the form of a secret exchange between father and son. Which is to say, what good is silent sympathy? What good is knowing when something is wrong and putting nothing on the line to speak to it? As Rosane writes, “Empathy becomes a game that can be rigged by generating opposing claims to who deserves its spotlight, leading to a stalemate of competing moral outrage.” Irving gestures toward the idea that the world is unfair, but he stops short of specifics, instead capitulating to the tired “that’s the way the world works” mantra. It’s telling that, more than the park bench scene with Aaron, this was the one that the audience at my second screening approved of. Tongues clucked, accompanied by understanding mmmms. The feeling was, This is something useful

God comes in after this point, upstairs with Paul as he does his homework. And as I see it, God takes the form of Grandpa Aaron. Or maybe it’s that God speaks through Aaron the whole time. He sits on Paul’s bed, a little tired, heard by Paul, seen by the audience, a hanging uncertainty of what’s real or not. Aaron asks how Paul did, if he tried, if he’ll keep trying because that’s all anyone can ever do. If there is any lesson in the film, it’s that there is no romance in struggling for the liberation of others, no heroism for the simple fact that you care. It is demoralizing to fully reckon with the carceral, retributive systems at work in this country, and how these harsh, vengeful ways of thinking are replicated in our interpersonal relationships. All the more reason, as Aaron gently urges—as God gently urges—to keep going. Despite the fact that some people, ineffable and distinct, won’t make it through, despite the limitations of one’s own power, and the imperfections of one’s own art. 

In his newsletter, writer John Ganz ruminates on the perspective of utility in art, specifically what audiences mistakenly look for in terms of the goodness or correctness of that art. Rather than a conservative bromide about how anyone should be allowed to do or say anything, Ganz emphasizes an ephemeral yet visceral quality that the best art has—its political implications, its import beyond usefulness, how it enriches life with its contradictions and attempts to touch others. In short, the animal urge to be awed, and maybe even moved. He writes: 

In so far as the words “spirit” or “spirituality” mean anything beyond woo-woo or cliché they must include the spontaneous human capacity to create images that reflect ourselves and the world but are not fully articulable in terms of concepts. Now people seem [to] respond to the products of the imagination in a very schizoid and polarized way: they take them hyper-literally, reacting to every fantasy that crosses the mind as the absolute truth of their self and world, or by totally pathologizing the very existence of the imagination and denying the validity of its products. This is certainly related to the inability to read fiction as anything beyond communicating a series of simple moral instructions.

Ganz’s point is not novel, though it resonates clearly now. At the same time that Gray has frequently and desperately lamented the dwindling appetite for studios to greenlight mid-budget films about ordinary people and potentially uncomfortable topics, there has been a parallel widespread reduction in the estimation of art. Whether this is the niche reaction of critics and intellectuals or a true phenomenon amongst and across generations, it’s difficult not to feel that films like Armageddon Time make people impatient. Perhaps for their lack of condescension or the fact that they reject pat reassurances that the trials and injustices of life, the vagaries and deep wells of doubt that spring up without warning, can be navigated, or even obliterated, by turning inward. 

In this way, Armageddon Time is a film of negative instruction, an illustration of what will happen should we continue to reward ourselves for being afraid of action. In the last scene, as Fred Trump makes a short speech, Paul walks out of a school function, seemingly rejecting the sophistry the Trumps represent. It’s true that, just like Spielberg’s final shot in The Fabelmans, Gray ends on a fictionalized version of himself walking forward into his own future. But what stings is the fact that, though Paul will keep trying, he’s already failed. Whether this failure in Johnny will serve as a kind of sustaining motivation to persevere isn’t really the point. Rather, it is inevitable that Paul will have to recapitulate his intentions, reorient his moral compass, and, in the process, stumble towards a hardier, more robust kind of ethics. There is no guidebook for that lifelong project. And, as Gray seems to say, there is no point in waiting for one to arrive. 

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