For teens, the underlying messages in writer-director James Gray's slice-of-life period piece may be murky, but its example of privilege is literally black and white. Using his 11-year-old self as main character Paul, Gray authentically depicts the shock and wonder of a child starting to understand the larger world around him. And it's not pretty. Paul's older Jewish relatives are wringing their hands about how "the Blacks" are being bused into his school and how that's negatively affecting his education. For some viewers, it may be startling to hear that kind of casual racism, especially coming from survivors of attempted genocide. But that's really the point of the film: showing the shifting targets of prejudice. Since the tide had turned considerably for Jews in America by 1980, Paul's wealthy new classmates don't treat him differently, other than assuming he's rich. But his Black best friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), is treated very differently, something Paul isn't really aware of until he's enrolled in an elite private school.
The movie's title -- taken from a speech by presidential candidate Ronald Reagan -- indicates that the film is both a reflection and an indictment of the United States in 1980. The '70s and early '80s fostered a nostalgic perspective of the 1950s. Similarly, in the 2020s, we see an embrace of the '80s as an ideal, carefree time. When the world feels especially chaotic, viewers look for entertainment that gives them comfort. This tendency leads to narratives about past eras that simply aren't accurate. Gray aims to set things straight. For example, Armageddon Time is a great reminder that part of what made Gen X "tough" was that adults believed a "good whipping" was necessary to get kids "in line." Hitting your kid wasn't just acceptable, it was expected. Schools weren't invested in discovering and building on a student's individual strengths and interests, but rather to mass-educate -- and those who couldn't keep up were left behind. Women may have been theoretically liberated, but the patriarchal system wasn't quite ready for them. And men were given the entire load of providing for their family: The money, the education, and the discipline. The whole system was a pressure cooker. Gray's choice to lay bare his childhood experiences will hopefully help audiences remember that the 1980s were a different era, not a better one.