“Armageddon Time” may be a film about James Gray’s childhood in Queens, New York, but the writer-director told a Cannes press conference on Friday that he very deliberately used that setting to address ways in which today’s America is broken.
“I think we’re in serious trouble today, don’t you?” said Gray, whose film stars Banks Repeta as Paul Graff, a version of the director as a sixth-grader, and Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway as his parents. “What happened? How’d we get here, where there’s, like, two people who own everything and a bunch of authoritarians trying to take over the planet?”
The system of inequality, he added, extends to Hollywood and to the plight of filmmakers and artists today. “The market is God,” he said. “If you tell someone under 20 ‘you’re a sellout,’ they think it means they have no more tickets left.
“The whole point should be to inspire creativity. Instead, what we say is, ‘That’s good franchise.’ We used to think of franchises as McDonald’s and Burger King. Now it’s cinema. And it’s up to artists to talk about what’s wrong, because it’s not coming from anywhere else, I can tell you.”
In “Armageddon Time,” Gray said he sounded that particular alarm by using the New York school system as a symptom. In the film, the character of Paul Graff is transferred from his public school in Queens to an expensive private school where his parents think he’ll get into less trouble. On his first morning in the school, he’s accosted in the corridor by a man we later learn is Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father. And at a school assembly that morning, the students are surprised by a pep talk from a notable alum, U.S. Attorney Maryanne Trump (a cameo by Jessica Chastain), who tells them that they’ll need to work for everything and no one will hand them anything.
The school reeks of privilege and thinly-disguised (or, at times, undisguised) racism, with the Trump family a clear part of its ethos.
“For me, it’s impossible to look at my country and not see white privilege as one of the guiding principles,” Gray said. “There are layers of privilege, and you almost have to see the people who went to that private school as having super-power privilege. They’re going to run everything and they know it.
“There’s something ossified about a system where the same group gets to the top, stays at the top and keeps everybody else out. How to you break the cycle? To me, that’s the guiding question.”
The film is set in 1980, a year that Gray remembers vividly because it’s when his hero, Muhammad Ali, lost in humiliating fashion to Larry Holmes, John Lennon was murdered and Ronald Reagan was elected president.
“I was in Cannes eight or nine years ago, about to go onstage, and a man came up to me and said, ‘You American?’” he said. “I said yes, and he looked at me for a long time and said, ‘You’ve lost something.’ At first I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But when I look back on history, there are inflection points. And if you look at the system of inequality, it began in 1979 and 1980. It’s an inflection point that has been overlooked, and in Hollywood it was the end of new cinema.”
The Cannes press conference was attended by Gray and actors Jaylin Webb, Repeta, Strong and Hathaway, who was overcome with emotion when she spoke of how she saw her role as a strong Jewish mother as a tribute to her mother-in-law, whom she called “the greatest Jewish mother I’ve ever seen, (whose) legacy influenced my life in profound ways that will always be with me.”
For his part, Strong said he agreed with a questioner who suggested a link between the time depicted in the film and the capitalism-run-amok world of his television series “Succession,” even though he wasn’t thinking about that when he was making “Armageddon Time.”
“You can find a threat connecting these two worlds,” Strong said. “As an actor you enter into a piece fully, so ‘Succession’ doesn’t exist for me in this world – but the fault lines that we see stating to crack in small ways in this film widen and widen and become the political and racial and social divisions in our world today. In the TV show I work on, certainly you can find the genome of that in this film.”
TheWrap’s review called the film one of the least nostalgic examples of a form that is almost by definition nostalgic,” and added: “Gray is hard on himself in ‘Armageddon Time’; Paul Graff, the film’s stand-in for the director as a sixth grader, is never cute, unless you want to dote on the angelic curls and ignore the purposefully stubborn personality. And he’s hard on the society in which Paul finds himself, where privilege is taken for granted by those who have the right class and color to get it.”