From Cannes: ‘Armageddon Time’ is a candid look at privilege in 1980s New York | Arts
It’s 1980 – The Sugarhill Gang is on tour, construction is underway on Disney World’s Epcot, and the Trump family owns a disproportionate amount of real estate in New York City. This is the precise time period in which James Gray’s new drama “Armageddon Time” is set, which premiered May 19 at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Largely based on Gray’s own experiences growing up in Queens, the film follows sixth grader Paul Graff as he navigates the political and social atmosphere of 1980s New York. The story tackles issues of oppression and privilege while delving into the complex dynamics of Paul’s flawed but loving family. Balancing these two narrative threads is a difficult task, but the all-star cast’s nuanced performances provide an emotional core to Gray’s deeply honest script. By telling a fictionalized version of his own childhood, he cleverly illuminates how the personal and the sociopolitical intertwine to shape what a person becomes in their impressionable years.
Like many other sixth graders, Paul is snotty and naive, but also loving and playful. All of these characteristics are brought to life by the expressive Banks Repeta. The film follows Paul through several months of his sixth grade, starting at a local public school and moving midterm to a private school. This transition has a lot to do with her friendship with a boy named Johnny (Jaylinn Webb) from her public school, who happens to be black – a fact that various characters repeatedly point out. While Johnny loves The Sugarhill Gang and Paul loves The Beatles, they quickly become close friends. Through the portrait of Paul and Johnny’s friendship, “Armageddon Time” provides a revealing commentary on white privilege in the United States, focusing on race relations in the 1980s with the rise of American conservatism. Reagan era.
Based on a true childhood friendship of Gray, Paul and Johnny share an endearing naivety: Paul dreams of being an artist while Johnny hopes to join NASA. Webb imbues Johnny, who has a troubled home life, with sensitivity and depth as his character deals with increasingly stressful situations. The boys have their fair share of problems together, and Johnny constantly faces bigger consequences for their actions than Paul. Their friendship is a candid reflection of how systems of oppression are strategically rigged against people of color, and the film shows the interpersonal costs of this devastating inequality.
After getting into trouble with Johnny, Paul’s family sends him to a private school where people like Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) give speeches. Here, Gray clearly shows the class stratification of the time and reveals the exclusive pool of privileged children who are set on the fast track to success – although Maryanne Trump insists they have earned their success and that they never receive “alms”. When the election is brought up at this assembly, the mostly white student crowd chants “Reagan, Reagan, Reagan!” It’s a drastically different world than Paul’s public school, and he feels uncomfortable there, especially when other students casually drop racial epithets.
During a press conference the day after the film premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, Gray spoke at length about his thoughts on capitalism and white privilege that color the film itself: “How did we get here? With everything held by two people and a group of authoritarians trying to take over the planet? »
In a sea of flawed people and moral ambiguity, Paul’s grandfather is the voice of reason in “Armageddon Time.” Played by Anthony Hopkins, he seems to be the only one who truly understands Paul, and their closely watched bond is a highlight of the film. Ever so charming, Hopkins crackles with warmth as the loving patriarch who builds the family with his guiding wisdom. While it’s unclear why his character appears to be a perfect saint when his family members are flawed, he nonetheless deepens the film’s emotional arc with his electric spark and bravado. In a powerful scene, he tells the story of the death of his mother’s parents in Ukraine in a brutal act of anti-Semitism. “Remember your past,” he told Paul. In another scene, he encourages Paul to speak out when kids at his private school make racist comments about people of color.
Paul Graff’s caring but flawed parents, brought to life by the immensely talented duo of Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong, also bolster the film. They are very well written as reflections of their time: his father aggressively beats him with a belt in a hard-to-watch scene; his mum insists she’s not racist but tells Paul to make sure he locks the house because she heard a ‘black boy’ was seen in the next alley . Gray comes across as utterly honest in writing this script, creating characters that can sometimes be biased or cruel or lighthearted and affectionate to others. The extended family often gathers around the table for meals, arguing, telling stories and talking to each other. With his portrayal of the Graffs, Gray shows the many layers that make up a family – the tenderness and tension that co-exist.
“Armageddon Time” is often a pretty grim depiction of inequality in America, and it doesn’t necessarily offer answers to these lingering issues. The neutral, earthy tones of the color palette reflect the muted melancholy that lingers throughout the film. However, there are still moments of levity as the charming and dreamy Paul discovers the realities of the world. Ultimately, “Armageddon Time” sheds light on a specific time period with a surprisingly candid eye, depicting the intimacies of family life with touching authenticity.
—Arts Chair Jaden S. Thompson can be reached at [email protected]