Armageddon Time: A Despairing, Delicate Film Set in the Trump Family’s Queens


In recent years, several major writer-directors have decided to get personal and take a look back at their younger years, each doing so in a manner befitting of their respective signature styles. In 2018 there was Alfonso Cuarón’s vivid social survey Roma. Last year’s Belfast was peppery and sentimental, a natural mode for director Kenneth Branagh. Later in 2022 Steven Spielberg will unveil his own memoir piece (his first time as a writer), The Fabelmans. We can, I would imagine, expect a vision of Americana flecked with darkness.

Beating that film to the punch is James Gray’s Armageddon Time, which premiered here at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday. Gray’s last two films have taken him to outer space and the depths of the Amazon jungle. But Armageddon Time finds Gray back in the gray and grainy outer-borough New York City of many of his earlier films, analyzing crime and consequence from a new perspective: his own.

The lead character in Gray’s semi-autobiographical film is named Paul Graff, his family’s surname changed (like Gray’s) at some point in the past in an effort to shroud their Jewishness from potential employers. He’s a middle-class 11-year-old living in single-home Queens in 1980, a dreamy troublemaker at school who would prefer to doodle and fantasize rather than pay attention to his dull disciplinarian of a teacher. Paul’s parents, Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong) are loving but stern, and he has a special bond with his wise old grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins). On TV, Ronald Reagan is seen on his way to winning the presidency, while a classmate speaks with awe of a moon landing—just 13 years prior—he’s too young to remember witnessing.

That classmate is Johnny (Jaylin Webb), one of the few Black kids in Paul’s class, who has a lonely home life in the care of his ailing grandmother. The two boys find that their rebellious streaks are well-suited to one another, and their antics escalate to the point of tragic disaster. Like Roma, Armageddon Time is perhaps most crucially an expression of guilt, an examination of the inequities complicitly abided by Paul and his family, by the Grays, and by so many other white Americans navigating their way through structures of authority and opportunity.

Armageddon Time is a damning moral drama that is in thoughtful dialogue with complex matters of race and class. The liberal-ish Graffs—with the annihilating memory of the Holocaust and the perniciousness of anti-Semitism in America looming so large at their dinner table—are somewhere in the middle of this country’s fraught hierarchy, trying to climb the ladder all thewhile ruefully aware of the people struggling beneath them.

Gray’s film is not a panacea for that guilt. In one scene, Aaron gives Paul a quiet, stirring little speech about standing up for other marginalized people when they are being aggressed upon, but righteous moments like that are, smartly, in short supply in Armageddon Time. It’s a despairing film, though not in a way that feels like showy, public flagellation. This is a modest picture, one that ably illustrates a preservationist ethos that has allowed the relatively privileged to turn away from glaring injustices.

In that, Armageddon Time is probably Gray’s most political film to date. It is very much in firm—and direct—stance against Trumpism. The old bastard Fred Trump (John Diehl) even appears in the film, as does his daughter, Maryanne (Jessica Chastain), speaking at the tony—and racist—private school Paul is transferred to when his mishaps at public school prove intolerable for his parents. That Donald himself is invisible and unspoken of is its own shrewd point: his worldview and that of his feverish acolytes was not formed out of whole cloth during his political ascendancy. It was already, of course, well established in America, seeping into school gymnasiums and, with Nixon and Reagan’s victories, into the White House.

Had Gray chosen to be didactic about all this, Armageddon Time would be smug and self-serving, a #Resist bit of mock-deferential preening. Instead, Gray lets his thesis gradually bloom in the minds of his audience, moving us slowly toward a shattering conclusion that also plays as a gentle but firm call to personal political action.

Oddly enough, I thought a lot about HBO’s recent wonderment The White Lotus while watching Armageddon Time. Both pieces sideline characters of color to make a point about the casual monstrousness of whiteness. It’s effective, but one wonders if it’s also a cop-out. Would Armageddon Time better honor its ideas and intentions if we got to know Johnny more, if we traveled back home with him beyond one brief flash of recollection? Is a white-guilt movie aimed squarely at that guilt a useful tool at this current juncture, especially when the preaching is being done to a choir as largely sympathetic as the audience at Cannes? I don’t really know the broader answers to those questions, and am eager to see how the film is tangled with when it arrives in the United States later this year from Focus Features.

In these immediate moments after seeing the film, though, I think that Gray has mostly avoided the pitfalls of his thematic argument. Armageddon Time is crafted with enough delicacy, with enough care, that it does not overreach in its efforts to say something. (The performances, by the way, are uniformly terrific.) It is a memoir piece held close to the filmmaker, full of prickly, ambivalent detail. Gray mostly keeps the interrogation on himself and his family, allowing viewers to suss out their own connections to the material, rather than volleying it at them. Still, there at the edges of the film, insisting its way toward the center, is a vision of something sinister and enormous, pervading these characters’ lives just as it does, over 40 years later, all of ours.



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