Cannes 2022 review: Armageddon Time (James Gray)

“In truth, Armageddon Time is a pandering film that lacks any sort of poignant idea about the mess America has gotten itself in over the past four decades, in lieu of patting itself on the back for being the enlightened one.”

Nostalgia on film is always a tricky field to navigate for a filmmaker, but nostalgia about the US on the brink of a slow disintegration is a minefield. Largely based on memories of his own childhood growing up in Queens, New York, director James Gray trips up on the reverberations of the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 that are still felt today, making his Armageddon Time a two-hour attempt to explain to the audience that he is one of the ‘good ones’. A heavy-handed film about race relations and the obliviousness of white privilege that employs a sledgehammer to drive home its message, Armageddon Time is a letdown from a director trying his best to needlessly exonerate himself and his family.

Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta) is a sixth-grader with ambitions to become an artist. His clear talent with pen and paper gets him into trouble early on though, when he draws a mocking portrait of his teacher who cannot appreciate his artistry. Soon joining Paul at the blackboard is Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a black integration student who is doubling sixth grade. Being punished creates a bond, and Paul and Johnny soon become best pals. Good-natured Paul helps Johnny join the class’s school trip to the Guggenheim Museum, stealing money from his mom’s jewelry box to finance the outing. To Paul this is no great matter as he claims his family is ‘super rich’, even though in reality the Graffs are strictly middle class. Paul’s dad (Jeremy Strong) is a mousy home repairman while his mom (Anne Hathaway) is a housewife and PTA president who plans to run for the school board. After Paul and Johnny get caught smoking a joint in the school’s bathroom the two are separated, with Paul being sent to the same private school as his brother by virtue of the financial savings of his grandparents. His grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) especially dotes on young Paul, giving the kid sage advice rooted in having escaped the Holocaust in his younger years. Suddenly thrust in with the offspring of New York’s elite, young Paul feels like a fish on dry land, and it doesn’t take long for the two friends to reconnect, hatching a plan to run away together.

No matter how doused Armageddon Time is in ’80s era nostalgia, with its graffiti and pinball machines, and its constant talk about Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, what mostly drips from the screen is white guilt. The Graffs may be a progressive-thinking family, but even in their household the casual racism rears its ugly head from time to time, from the ignorant naming of a Chinese restaurant to the talk of ‘those neighbourhoods’ when referring to the background of the black kids integrating in Paul’s school. It is commendable that Gray isn’t afraid to show this. Yet he also doesn’t miss an opportunity to absolve them by showing the audience that their hearts are in the right place whenever he can. Hopkins’ character in particular gets to be a beacon of kindness and wisdom, teaching Paul to ‘be a mensch’ whenever people talk trash about his black friend.

By setting the film in the year that Ronald Reagan got elected Gray deliberately links the film to our current times, in which racial tensions have been exacerbated by an ever-growing polarization and the extreme political positions of the Republican party that came with it. Only in recent times has it started to dawn on white people in America that they may enjoy some privileges (or one could say, basic human rights) that their non-white fellow citizens do not have. Armageddon Time likes to point out that difference in treatment time and again, using Johnny as an example to show white prejudice from which Paul should learn a life lesson. And of course he does. This reduces Johnny’s character to perhaps not exactly a ‘magical negro’, but at least some version of that. From the opening scene, in which the strict teacher mutters ‘animal’ under his breath when disciplining the boy, the film is a string of incidents in which the boys get into trouble together, with Paul then being let off the hook while Johnny doesn’t get the same treatment. Paul’s initial obliviousness about this is erased once he encounters more naked racism at his new school, and with the help of his grandfather he has an epiphany of sorts. In essence, Johnny only shows up in the film when it is time for Paul to take another step on his path to become an enlightened being, and this treatment of the only black character in the film doesn’t sit right, especially in a film that is keen on pointing out people being racist while unaware of being so.

From a cinematic point of view there is little to complain about in Armageddon Time, from the work of the various tech departments on display to Darius Khondji’s lensing and the solid performances of its large cast, with Jeremy Strong in particular delivering an impressive performance as a measured man with sporadic violent outbursts of pent-up anger at his position in society. A one-scene cameo by Jessica Chastain as Maryanne Trump is distracting, the stunt casting highlighting the unnecessary insertion of the Trump family into the film just to underline in red marker the idea, “See, this is where it all began.” As Armageddon Time stumbles to the end, one starts to wonder what the intended audience is, and what Gray thinks of that audience. In essence he is preaching to the choir here, but that choir will lap it up and sing hymns of praise. In truth, Armageddon Time is a pandering film that lacks any sort of poignant idea about the mess America has gotten itself in over the past four decades, in lieu of patting itself on the back for being the enlightened one, thereby allowing the audience who praises it to claim enlightenment too.