Cannes Review: James Gray’s ‘Armageddon Time’ in ’80s New York

The title of James Gray’s ‘Armageddon Time’, which premiered in competition Thursday night at the 75th Cannes Film Festival, is an ironic reference to a comment made by Ronald Reagan during his first presidential campaign: “We may be the generation that sees Armageddon,” he said in a conversation with televangelist Jim Bakker. It was one of Reagan’s many invocations of the end times before and during his presidency, alarming of many, including religious leaders who believed he was using the Bible to justify and precipitate a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

We see this televised moment through the wide, naive eyes of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a sixth-grade student growing up in a Jewish family in Queens, New York, and a stand-in for young Gray himself. The distance and specificity of the 1980 film’s setting are a disturbing yet reassuring reminder that every era has its false apocalyptic prophets, and every generation imagines it might be the last of humanity. That’s not the only way history resonates again in “Armageddon Time,” a coming-of-age drama that feels both tenderly observed and harshly pessimistic about its timing, as well as ours. .

The ongoing catastrophe of Russia’s war on Ukraine inevitably casts dark shadows over the film’s lightly sketched Cold War era, as well as the fact that Gray is of Ukrainian Jewish descent. (This detail is briefly noted when Paul’s beloved grandfather, played by a movingly miscast Anthony Hopkins, recalls an anti-Semitic attack on his own grandparents in their Ukrainian hometown.) school classroom and the Graffs’ dimly lit Flushing townhouse, “Armageddon Time” sometimes ceases to feel like a period piece, insofar as it touches on white privilege, black punishment, Republican fear , to the Trump family and to the many forms and gradations of American injustice.

Jaylin Webb and Banks Repeta in the movie “Armageddon Time”.

(Main Features)

The story centers on the close friendship that forms between Paul and Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a black, misfit classmate. Together, they give up on a field trip, complain about their teacher, smoke a joint in the toilet and have big dreams. (Paul wants to be a famous artist; Johnny aspires to work for NASA.) Their bond marks them as equals, even if their personal circumstances do the opposite. Suffice to say that Paul is slow to realize the advantages he has over Johnny, including a mother (Anne Hathaway) active in his school district; a father (Jeremy Strong) who earns his living as a plumber; and a close-knit extended family that is a source of hearty laughter, memorable stories, and grave warnings to never forget the lessons of history. Paul’s family is also a source of occasional anti-black racism, an irony that illustrates the script’s layered understanding of hypocrisy and privilege.

“Armageddon Time”, which will be distributed by Focus Features in the United States, marks a return to his roots for Gray in more ways than one; after his recent treks through the Amazon in “The Lost City of Z” and the outer reaches of the solar system in “Ad Astra,” he’s finally returned to the New York City of his childhood and past movies. The last film he shot in New York was his 2013 period drama “The Immigrant,” the story of which finds a resounding echo here when Paul’s grandfather reminisces about the family’s own time in Ellis Island.

Coincidentally, “The Immigrant” was also Gray’s last film to screen at Cannes, a festival that has been both kind and mean to this filmmaker over the years. It was there that Gray, an underrated figure in the United States, cemented his passion among French critics and moviegoers, many of whom consider him the heir to great American authors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. (France has always prided itself on having had the foresight to appreciate American culture in a way that Americans themselves cannot; just ask Clint Eastwood.)

Even still, none of Gray’s previous four films shortlisted for the prestigious Cannes competition – ‘The Yards’, ‘We Own the Night’, ‘Two Lovers’ and ‘The Immigrant’ – has ever left the festival with a single price. . That’s partly because juries sometimes assume a star-studded American film doesn’t need the extra recognition, and partly because Gray’s decidedly old-fashioned classic storytelling can elicit indifference and contempt as well as admiration. . I still remember the nasty boos that greeted “We Own the Night” and “Two Lovers” at their first Cannes press screenings in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Two men are sitting on the ground by a fire with mountains behind them

Alessandro Borghi and Luca Marinelli in the film “The Eight Mountains”.

(Cannes Film Festival)

It remains to be seen whether “Armageddon Time” will find love with this year’s competition jury, which is chaired by French actor Vincent Lindon. These are still the first days of this 75th annual edition of the festival, although there have already been some early highlights. One of them is “The Eight Mountains” (“Le Otto Montagne”), a beautifully filmed entry from Belgian filmmakers Felix van Groeningen (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”, “Beautiful Boy”) and Charlotte Vandermeersch. Adapted from the best-selling novel by Paolo Cognetti, the film traces the decades-long friendship between Pietro and Bruno, who met at the age of 11 one summer in Grana, a small mountain village in the north-west of Italy. ‘Italy.

For Pietro, who grew up in Turin, these mountains, which tower majestically in the almost square compositions of Ruben Impens, are a beautiful and glorious retreat. For Bruno, raised by local farmers and cheese makers, they are the only home and the only world he has ever known. While the two characters are played by different actors at different ages, most of the film takes place when they are in their thirties, as Pietro (Luca Marinelli) struggles with the wanderlust, a literary calling and the emotional void left by her late father (Filippo Timi). Notably, his father spent more time in his later years with Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) than with his own son, a painful detail that both complicates and enriches the young men’s friendship.

As a tale of two boys from very different families, classes and worlds, “The Eight Mountains” would make a fitting double bill with “Armageddon Time”, even if it is also long, since Van Groeningen’s film and Vandermeersch lasts about 150 minutes. I think he wins pretty much all of them, given how progressively and insightfully he follows the journey of his characters, as friends and as individuals. It’s the rare film that understands how connected we are to the physical and psychological spaces of childhood, how our families and the traditions they raised us with can be both nurturing and limiting. More than anything, it brings a little-seen world to life with an almost palpable physicality, even as it reminds us that living and working with one’s hands – milking a cow, building a house, climbing a mountain – is for some a romantic ideal. and for others an implacable reality.

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