Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong in James Gray’s ‘Armageddon Time’: Film Review | Cannes 2022

The director returns to the setting of his 1980s childhood in Queens with this coming-of-age story about hard lessons and comforts in a fractious but loving family, also featuring Anthony Hopkins.

After venturing far from the home turf that forged his reputation to visit the Amazon in The Lost City of Z and deep space in Ad Astra, James Gray returns in his most acutely personal film, Armageddon Time, to the Queens, New York, neighborhood where he grew up. An unvarnished family snapshot that traces the seeds from which the artist evolved and the tough lessons about life’s unfairness that helped shape his character, this is a refreshingly understated drama whose gentleness makes it all the more bittersweet. The same goes for the unimpeachably lived-in performances from Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong and Anthony Hopkins, along with two bright young newcomers.

Bowing in the Cannes competition ahead of its release later in the year from Focus Features, this is clearly a work of great love, emotional authenticity and gratitude, qualities that breathe life into every widescreen frame of cinematographer Darius Khondji’s appropriately unflashy visuals, with their grainy textures and muted colors.

Armageddon Time

The Bottom Line

Minor-key magic.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Tovah Feldshuh, John Diehl, Andrew Polk, Ryan Sell, Jacob Mackinnon Marcia Jean Kurtz, Domenick Lombardozzi
Director-screenwriter: James Gray

1 hour 55 minutes

Seldom does a place and time — 1980, on the cusp of the first Reagan presidency — come alive so evocatively, eschewing the filters of nostalgia for more palpable sensations. Nothing is romanticized, and yet the drama is suffused with natural warmth, even when it depicts traumatic experience. It’s also keenly attuned to the cultural specificity of being a descendant of Jewish immigrants who fled Eastern Europe, of reaching an age when the long arm of history pierces and shifts your worldview.

Gray’s stand-in is Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a sixth grader at PS 173 in Queens whose humorless teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), is unimpressed by his art skills or his attempts to make the other students laugh. Paul is just beginning to savor the onset of teen rebellion, drawing him to one of the Black kids in the class, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who’s been held back a year and is a frequent target of the animosity of “Turkey,” as they call the teacher.

While Paul coasts by for a while under the mistaken assurance that his mother Esther (Hathaway) has authority over Turkey in her role as PTA president, his smart mouth and openly defiant attitudes frequently anger both of his parents. His dad, Irving (Strong), is a tightly wound plumber who tends to prattle on whether or not anyone’s listening, about subjects as random as the perfect load-bearing qualities of a truss bridge. Paul is mostly at odds with his bullying older brother Ted (Ryan Sell), so his main connection in the family is with his big-hearted English grandpa Aaron (Hopkins), who buys the boy a model rocket kit and promises to take him to Flushing Meadows to launch it once Paul is done assembling the toy.

That scene, with the futuristic 1964 World’s Fair structures looming in the background, is among the movie’s most affecting moments, showing Hopkins’ consummate skill at conveying a deep emotional well with impeccable restraint. Aaron, whose quiet wisdom and unfailing calm make him the heart of the generally more volatile family, is about to go into hospital for major surgery, explaining to Paul only that he’s going away for a while. A quick shot of his daughter Esther watching the two of them from the car is steeped in a sadness that lingers over the subsequent action in a film that’s sincere but never sentimental.

Hathaway does her best work since Rachel Getting Married. Unlike most American movie moms, Esther is not a perfect vessel of love and understanding but a real, frazzled human being, her nurturing instincts often dulled by flashes of impatience. (She’s also just too busy to mollycoddle her sons — she teaches home economics and is running for a seat on the district school board.) What’s lovely though is that even the worst screaming arguments are invariably followed by small gestures of affection, signaling that quarrels are quickly forgotten.

The family scenes are gorgeous. Messy and alive, they’re notable for their seeming casualness in capturing moments where nothing of major plot import might be happening but the director nonetheless is subtly sketching in a whole complex dynamic of distinct personalities. Dinner table conversations are quietly hilarious in showing a bunch of people all talking at once and frequently not listening. And the unkindness between brothers at that age seems drawn directly from experience.

That gives the intimate conversations between Paul and his Grandpa real heft. Paul is just emerging from the incurious phase of childhood and perhaps for the first time is receptive to hearing about the pain of the past. Aaron tells the boy of the courage of his grandmother Mickey (Tovah Feldshuh), whose Ukrainian parents were murdered in front of her by Cossacks, and who got herself out through Poland and on to England. There she met her future husband and they traveled to America through Ellis Island.

But this is not a familiar count-your-blessings lecture. It seems intended more to trace a lineage, to prompt Paul to believe in himself and the possibilities that the world can hold for him. His Grandpa has a knack for getting through to Paul in a way that his parents often can’t. So when he gets caught at school smoking a joint with Johnny, and his parents decide to take him out of public school and put him in the same exclusive private school as Ted in wealthy Forest Hills, it’s only through his Grandpa’s firm reasoning that Paul accepts that miserable fate.

Even if they’re not averse to displays of casual racism, Paul’s family is liberal and open-minded, appalled at the rise of Reagan from being a terrible governor to a player on the national political stage. That makes Paul’s exposure to mean-spirited rich kids and their openly discriminatory views shocking, even if he’s too fearful to speak out against them.

Gray nods to the spiraling forces of hate and division in America via brief appearances from one of the Forest Hills school’s chief benefactors, Fred Trump (John Diehl), who snidely welcomes Paul on his first day, grilling the kid about the ethnic origins of the name Graff. Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain in a cameo) addresses the school assembly on the importance of earning their success and not looking for handouts. No sanctimonious emphasis is required to note the irony of that message coming from a family for whom nepotism is as natural as breathing.

The film’s title, rendered in subway-graffiti font in the opening and closing credits, comes from the late ‘70s Willie Williams reggae song covered by The Clash, one of two songs by the English rockers heard on the soundtrack. Armageddon is constantly predicted by politicians warning of the nuclear war threat, but for Paul, it’s his removal from the world he knows to be plonked down into an enclave of white privilege. Even the way success is defined suddenly seems alien to him in an environment in which students are being urged to shape themselves as future leaders in finance, business and politics.

“Both our boys will get a real seat at the table,” says Grandma Mickey, a retired public schoolteacher like her husband. Her disapproval of the Black kids being bussed in to overcrowded classrooms might have made her an abrasive figure in another writer-director’s hands. But Gray shows compassion in examining the contradictions and limitations in family members who would never see themselves as endorsing the thinking of Reaganite conservatives.

The main conflict stirred up by Paul’s move is the distance it opens up between him and Johnny, who lives alone with his grandmother and keeps dodging social services when her dementia progresses too far for him to remain in her custody.

There’s melancholy feeling in the gradual shift from the two boys’ caper-like adventures — skipping out on a school excursion to the Guggenheim Museum to go to Central Park and a pinball parlor — to the desperation of Johnny, hiding out in Paul’s backyard clubhouse. Johnny’s dreams of being an astronaut fuel the idea of running away to Florida to work at NASA, and Paul’s fascination with superheroes perhaps feeds the foolish belief that he can make that happen. When their plan inevitably fails, it confronts Paul with the harsh inequalities of a world in which “some people get a raw deal,” as Irving tells him in a devastating exchange.

Strong, with his rigid body language, is at his best in that scene. Irving makes moving acknowledgment that he doesn’t know how to talk to his son the way the boy’s Grandpa does; he all but begs for Paul’s understanding given his mother’s fragility after she has suffered a blow. That soft-spoken, grownup conversation provides a poignant contrast with an earlier scene in which Irving violently disciplines the boy. And in Repeta’s tender, watchful performance, it shows Paul taking loss on board, learning to think for himself and see the world for what it is.

This is a thoughtful film laced throughout with small ripple-effect moments that continue to resonate even beyond the end credits, their emotional effect delicately amplified by Christopher Spelman’s acoustic score. The mix of classical with period tracks like “Rapper’s Delight,” by Johnny’s favorite band, The Sugarhill Gang, also reinforces the meaning of a story about a past reflective of other pasts before it, but also tethered very much to our present.

“Don’t be nervous, be bold,” Grandpa Aaron urges Paul. While we see evidence only of the kid’s talent for drawing and painting — including a creditable Kandinsky copy that Turkey dismisses — it’s impossible not to see the fledgling filmmaker Gray embracing that guiding principle.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Distribution: Focus Features
Production companies: Mad River Pictures, Keep Your Head Productions, in association with Spacemaker Productions
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Tovah Feldshuh, John Diehl, Andrew Polk, Ryan Sell, Jacob Mackinnon Marcia Jean Kurtz, Domenick Lombardozzi
Director-screenwriter: James Gray
Producers: Anthony Katagas, Marc Butan, Rodrigo Teixeira
Executive producers: Alan Terpins, Marco Tulio Kehdi, Francisco Civita, Beto Gauss, Gustavo Debs, Lourenço Sant'Anna
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Happy Massee
Costume designer: Madeline Weeks
Music: Christopher Spelman
Editor: Scott Morris
Casting: Douglas Aibel

1 hour 55 minutes