When the Cannes Film Festival audience stood to applaud James Gray's richly observed autobiographical drama Armageddon Time, about the director's 1980s childhood in Queens, New York, Gray's voice quivered as he addressed the crowd.
“It’s my story, in a way,” said Gray. “And you guys shared it with me.”
“It took every last bit of control not to burst out into tears," Gray said, still recovering the next day in Cannes. “It’s been a really strange journey making the film and my father died two months ago of Covid. The whole process has been fraught and filled with emotion.”
Armageddon Time, starring Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong, has stirred Cannes like no other American film at the festival this year.
Gray's movie, which Focus Features will distribute in the US later this year, has been received as a tender triumph for the New York filmmaker of The Immigrant and Ad Astra not only for his detailed excavation of his childhood, but for how the film re-examines his white privilege growing up — how race and money can tip the scales in the formative years of young people.
Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a sixth-grader modelled on Gray, now 53, in a middle-class Jewish family. At school, Paul's friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb) is a black kid with fewer advantages, who is treated differently than Paul. When Paul's family elects to send him to a private school, the gap only grows. Connections to today's inequities aren't hard to decipher. At the private school, Jessica Chastain makes a cameo as Maryanne Trump, sister to Donald and an assistant US attorney.
For Gray, Armageddon Time is a period film about now, and a coming home after two far-flung films in the Amazon-set The Lost City of Z and the space adventure Ad Astra.