"Armageddon Time" Cannes Review
In the words of Mugatu from Zoolander: “Directors making their own autobiographies, it’s so hot right now.”
Of course, a regarded filmmaker telling their life story isn’t exactly a brand new concept. François Truffaut did it with The 400 Blows, and so did Federico Fellini with Amarcord. But just like skinny ties and baggy beanies, the fad went away for a while. That was until 2018, when Alfonso Cuarón made it cool again with Roma, which earned him a trio of Oscar statuettes, including Best Director. Now it’s become a genre itself, with directors churning out cine-memoirs at a pace that rivals the MCU. There’s been Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Richard Linklater’s Apollo 101/2, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Bardo (I’m not going to spell out the whole title, it hasn’t earned that gesture yet), Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir films, and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. And now, after venturing out into the Amazon jungle for The Lost of Z and deep space for Ad Astra, writer/director James Gray returns home to Queens, New York for Armageddon Time.
Apart from being a homecoming to the location that housed his first five films, Armageddon Time also serves as Gray’s return to the Croisette after almost a decade away. It’s his fifth time competing for the Palme d’Or, and, based on the quality of this film, I’d say it’s his best chance yet.
Banks Repeta (in his first major role after appearances as younger versions of characters in The Devil All the Time and Uncle Frank) is our stand-in for Gray as Paul Graff, a sixth-grader at PS-173 in 1980 Queens. He’s a gifted student, but not a very motivated one, which often leads him into trouble with his strict teacher Mr. Turkeltaub. One of his regular prankster cohorts is Johnny, the only black student in the class. Despite both of them often getting caught for the same thing, Johnny’s punishment always seems to be worse than Paul’s. It’s a fact that resonates with Paul, even if the concept of racism hasn’t fully formed within his head. But his parents don’t see the innocence in the situation and move him to an elite private school across town.
It’s not hard to imagine Gray writing this story during the Trump presidency, especially since Donald’s father and sister, Fred, and Maryanne, play small roles in shaping Paul’s increasingly pessimistic worldview during his time at the seemingly all-white prep school. Gray’s bluntness is apparent as he traces how the casually elitist and racist children of the Reagan era grew up to embrace the 45th president, and how their children will likely do the same in a few decades. It sometimes comes as lecturing, but there’s a sweetly honest feel to it that makes it go down smoothly.
Also lending to the emotional pull of the film is the grownup trio of Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, and Anthony Hopkins. Hathaway is given the shorter end of the stick as Paul’s affectionate mother, but the actress makes up for her limited time with some moments of pathos. Strong, playing the more emotionally distant father that doesn’t hesitate to teach with his belt, also makes a strong impression, even if it sometimes feels as if he’s trying to do his best Ray Romano impression. It’s Hopkins who steals the show as the grandfather who fled Europe to escape Jewish persecution and find a better life in America. He’s always got a nugget of wisdom to spare, and a heart warm enough to start a fire in winter. The scenes between grandpa and grandson are a clear standout, especially one set in the park where the elder shares a touching monologue, which will surely be used as Hopkin’s Oscar clip come next year’s ceremony.
You won’t walk away from Armageddon Time feeling as if you’ve been enlightened or seen something out of the ordinary, but you may find yourself moved at times and closely connected to your familial past. And at the end of the day, we could all use a little more of that.