Brian Formo’s review published on Letterboxd:
Armageddon Time is more probing than the other white male directors who are revisiting their childhood in 2022 cinema. The intentions feel both noble and hollow. Like a 2016 script trying to answer "how did we get here" with an introspection of how I/my family/all of white America is complicit in attempts to get ahead. It doesn't register the same in 2022 but it would've brought the Academy's house down in 2017. Set in 1980, just prior to Reagan winning the presidency, a young Jewish boy befriends a young Black boy and learns how his life path will be easier than his friend's — because of a private school that receives major donations from the Trump family and how the law treats them differently in affording the opportunity to learn from mistakes.
There are some hard (different decade) truths here. Like being uncomfortable with language and prejudices when young, but feeling unable to speak up because that emotion is so specific and foreign. (And often repeated in different ways by adults, an important point here in the lack of safety in speaking up.) And in learning how to shove down feelings from your family (the father figure has his sons’ mother grieve separately from them). And buying into the idea of getting a leg-up elite schooling. But, like the other autobiographical movies of this year, it doesn't really become a movie. It feels specifically directed to white audiences to acknowledge their privilege and discuss the moments that they worked the system to their advantage despite knowing that it was wrong. It's meant to start a conversation that is uncomfortable. But it feels off and incomplete as a narrative. Particularly how the mother character fades away once points are to be made. And especially in how the friend is there simply as a thematic archetype, Gray too incurious (or afraid) to make him more. I get the sense that memory rendered Gray immobile in regards to Johnny. And it makes him feel more uncomfortably othered by the filmmaker in the same way that the child is uncomfortable by how the adults other Johnny so openly.
It's sadly fitting that for a director that has made some of the best American movies for the past 15 years—that were all botched by distributors/mergers—will have his cleanest release for his least interesting and least narratively tight film. In some circles, James Gray will be celebrated for being brave. In others, he's gonna get dragged for telling on himself — but it's also something that people need to do more of. I dunno. I'm not sure what to make of this. I can't tell if I respect it or want to return to sender. Because my age straddles two generations (X and Millennial) very distinctly, I am pulled in both directions. I think I respect it a bit more upon reflection but I also just don't know what it's here for other than white people over 40 to say, yeah, oopsie.
Anthony Hopkins is fabulous, though.