Cannes Review: James Gray’s ‘Armageddon MassNews’

Yout’s conveniently noble to think that human beings are shaped by their actions, that decisiveness is what makes us who we are. But the moments we fail to act are what we most often remember. There’s the merest synapse leap between wanting to do the right thing and actually doing it, and a civilization can rise or fall depending on how many people are willing to bridge that gap.

James Gray’s quietly extraordinary Armageddon Time—playing in competition at the 75th Cannes Film Festival—is all about that gap. It’s also about growing up in Queens circa 1980, about parents who want the best for their children sometimes, inadvertently, at the expense of other people’s children, about the way things an adult might carelessly say can crush a kid. It’s about a time and a place—a household, a borough, a city, a country—where people find themselves at a moral turning point even as they’re making dinner or sitting at a school desk or spending time with a beloved grandparent in the park. Perhaps the idea is that moral turning points can be small and not large.

That’s a lot of weight for a movie to hold. Yet Gray, one of our finest filmmakers—as the French know, even if moviegoers in the States have been slow to catch on to marvels like The Immigrant Z: The Lost City—has shaped Armageddon TimeWith such an easy touch, the movie almost ends before you realise much. And even when it’s finished, it’s not quite finished; it’s as if the movie itself were a traveler in a folk tale, still on its way to a place, a future, that we haven’t quite reached.

The movie’s unformed hero, its young James Gray stand-in, is P.S. 173 sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a bright kid with dreams of grandeur—he wants to be a famous artist—but who fails to apply himself in school. He’s dreamy and distracted and smart-alecky, which gets him in trouble with his teacher, an irascible blank named Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk). But there’s another student whom Mr. Turkeltaub dislikes even more: Johnny (Jaylin Webb) is another bright kid who fails to apply himself, but not for the same reasons Paul does. Johnny is one of the very few Black students, making him an outsider. He’s also an entertainer at heart, an attention seeker. When Mr. Turkeltaub takes attendance, Johnny identifies himself, using a phony British accent, as “Bond—James Bond,” a dumb sixth-grader joke that he lands with the finesse of a junior Sean Connery.

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But Johnny’s been set up to fail, and he knows it. He is in his sixth grade second attempt, Mr. Turkeltaub reminding him with a mocking smile, this time with the class. Paul finds himself drawn towards this fellow troublemaker. He loves NASA and wants to be a part of it. When Paul decrees, with the all-seeing discernment of a true 12-year-old, that “disco sucks,” Johnny asks, with barely a blink, if he knows about the Sugar Hill Gang, now seen as outrageously influential but at the time just breaking through, on the street and in dance clubs. Paul is that kid. Consider these ideasHe knows everything; Johnny knows all the details.

Paul is a confident, but anxious, messiah. He refuses to eat the dinner prepared by Esther (Anne Hathaway), his mother. Instead, he grabs her phone and orders dumplings at the Chinese restaurant. Irving Strong, Irving’s father, is an older man who repairs boilers and wears a worn-out crew cut. However, he tries to be orderly but fails most of the time. He also struggles to keep his temper under control, but Strong ensures his love and decency for his family. Paul has an older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), who goes to private school and who doesn’t seem to like his younger sibling that much, though Gray signals that he’s not all bad—he’s the one who has brought the Raincoats’ sublime anthem of dislocation “Fairytale in the Supermarket” into the household, so we know there’s something going on under the hood there.

Paul is not willing to listen except for his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), an English-born transplant, whose mother escaped antisemitic persecution and personal tragedy decades ago in Ukraine. Aaron sees all that’s special about Paul, things Paul can’t yet see in himself. Aaron gives Esther acrylic paints to help her suggest that Paul can make art a hobby, not a job. This gift he gives to his grandson. Take ownership birthday.) Paul also gets a celebratory back-to-school present in the form of a model rocket, that he and his grandfather later launch in the park—it zings into the sky, and seems to ignite Paul’s delight in the possibilities of life.

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Hopkins plays Aaron with an ethereal, real warmth. He is kind, gentle, thoughtful and humorous, but what is his greatest gift? His ability to see every second of the day. After Paul gets yanked from public school and sent to the same august, deadly institution his brother attends (an officious Fred Trump is a highly visible trustee, which tells you something), Paul confesses that he’s committed a sin of omission against his old friend Johnny, whom he’s all too conveniently left behind. Aaron corrects him with an unmarred sanctimoniousness and sternness. He’s one of those deeply kind souls that you might think are invented just for the movies, unless you’ve known one yourself.

Paul is both porous and stubborn, but above all, he’s still just a kid. He’s tall for his age, with beanpole legs, but he’s not one of these preternaturally wise children: his face, sweet yet quizzical, perpetually looks as if he’s thinking things through, and sometimes coming up with the wrong answer. Repeta’s performance is wonderful, but it was Webb’s that broke me. When Johnny is with Paul, his face radiates joyous openness—almost as if he held the unacknowledged belief that if he sticks close enough to his white friend, the good things that happen to white people, as opposed to the bad things that happen to a Black kid like him, will be his destiny too.

But one person after another lets Johnny down—even, indirectly, Paul’s parents, who are the kind of good citizens who deplore the ascent of Ronald Reagan. They’re liberal, to a point, and adamantly “not racist”—as long as there are no Black people in their own backyard. And Paul can’t see that if he gets into a scrape with the law, he’ll have a way out; Johnny won’t. To watch Johnny’s face as he sees one door after another close on him—to see the blank self-protectiveness that clouds his eyes—is to see the absolute coldness of our own country at work.

There’s some joyousness in The Armageddon Period: a rambunctious family dinner, the utter ridiculousness of the way killjoy Mr. Turkeltaub sternly informs his listless students that “gym is a privilege,” the way Paul stands before a Kandinsky on a school field trip to the Guggenheim and sees his own glorious future its brash lines, its bold candy slices of color. Yet, I came home from Armageddon TimeWanting to cry as though it had made me feel regretful. This could easily be described as a comparison Armageddon Time to autobiographical reflections like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma or, to a lesser extent, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, both stories in which kids’ eyes are suddenly opened to the unfairness of the world. But for all its tenderness, this isn’t a movie that allows you to make peace with yourself, or with our highly imperfect world. You might be the next one to fail. Be prepared for the unexpected.

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