James Gray’s Vision of American Dysfunction

In Armageddon Time, the filmmaker’s New York childhood is a warning bell for our polarized present.

A portrait of filmmaker James Gray
Mark Sommerfeld / NYT / Redux

James Gray started writing his new film, Armageddon Time, after taking a trip to his childhood home in Fresh Meadows, Queens, with his own children a few years ago. One of the only pieces of evidence that his family had ever lived there was, he told me, “a gate my father had built around the garbage cans which had a majestic G for Gray, which was off its hinges.” He thought about dinners, gatherings, and how all of his family who lived there, except his brother, have since died. “I was filled with real melancholy,” Gray said. “And I started to feel like there was no memory of their existing.”

This realization sent Gray on a journey into creative territory he’d so far mostly avoided: his memories. Gray has spent much of his storied career making movies about New York, but his last two projects, the masterful tropical epic The Lost City of Z and the mournful sci-fi blockbuster Ad Astra, had taken him far afield. “I made a film in the jungle, which was … very physically taxing, and then I made Ad Astra, which was taxing for other reasons,” he told me, referring to the film’s troubled postproduction. “I wanted to rediscover my love for the medium.” The result is Armageddon Time, a bittersweet memoir set in 1980 about a pivotal moment in Gray’s adolescence as a middle-class Jewish kid growing up in deep Queens. The film also reckons with the venal politics of the era, which Gray perceives as a warning bell for our polarized present.

To tell this story, Gray went as specific as he could. Armageddon Time follows the wayward sixth grader Paul Graff (played by Banks Repeta), whose parents, Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong), move him to a private school out of concern for his classroom behavior and grades. Gray spins this life change into a pitiless exploration of class and privilege at a shifting time for American mores. The Graffs, though secure in their Jewishness, are eager to assimilate, and that lands their son in the same school that the Trump family, New York’s then-avatars of outer-borough wealth, attended.

That sort of aspiration was what the family home’s wrought-iron G signified to Gray: a totem of status on an otherwise modest property. In Armageddon Time, the Graffs’ similarly humble household is frequently in a state of chatty chaos, sometimes the backdrop to bickering or outright warring. Strong’s performance is the kind of mesmerizing piece of self-loathing that the actor excels at, binding the character’s class anxieties to his struggle to project authority at home. Armageddon Time also digs into Paul’s relationship with his kind, immigrant grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins); his difficulties as a student; and his bond with a Black schoolmate named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who has access to none of the help Paul eventually gets. The movie is suffused with both love and guilt, a complex portrayal of parenthood with an embittered view of the costs of assimilation.

In addition, the film features a one-scene appearance from the New York City housing magnate Fred Trump and his daughter Maryanne (played by John Diehl and Jessica Chastain, respectively), whom Paul runs afoul of on his first day at his new school. The cameo is based on something that Gray says happened when he started attending the Kew-Forest School, of which both Maryanne and Donald Trump were alums. According to Gray, he was barked at by Fred in a hallway; later that day, he had to listen to a motivational speech from Maryanne in the auditorium, insisting that hard work was the key to her success. When we spoke, Gray recalled the saying about people oblivious to their privilege: “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” “That was the speech,” Gray said. “I remember being like, What the fuck are you talking about?

The sudden appearance of the Trumps in Armageddon Time is a shock, a funny childhood recollection that quickly curdles as Maryanne starts to lecture the students on personal responsibility. The knowledge of the Trumps’ presence in modern-day America is also the unsettling aftertaste to Gray’s nostalgia—the notion that a family he viewed as entitled villains in school eventually rose to dominate political discourse. “I have begun, in my own pathetic way, to think 1980 is a very important year in the history of the country,” Gray told me. That was the year of the Reagan Revolution, a political realignment for the country. But it was also a tragic time for two of Gray’s idols: Muhammad Ali, who lost a brutal fight to Larry Holmes in October 1980 that essentially ended his career, and John Lennon, who was killed in December of that year. “They both represented integrity to me,” Gray said.

To the director, the Reagan era was the beginning of a decline in values that led to Donald Trump’s election decades later. “The No. 1 crisis for me is that we haven’t yet figured out a way to monetize integrity. All of our issues stem from that,” Gray continued. “Everything becomes transactional, your only value is how much money you make, and integrity doesn’t matter.” Donald Trump, Gray said, is “a completely transactional figure.”

Still, the film is also about Gray’s parents’ dreams, social class, and “the roots of what we call white privilege.” His closest inspiration was the Federico Fellini film Amarcord, which combines a semi-autobiographical portrait featuring memories from the director’s childhood with an illustration of the height of Mussolini’s power and fascism in 1930s Italy.

Our discussion turned to Father Coughlin, a priest and broadcaster who commanded a massive audience in the 1930s and spouted anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi speech in the lead-up to World War II. “I believe he had 30 million listeners a week,” Gray said. “How many people were in the United States in 1936? I’m gonna guess 100 million” (I checked—it was about 128 million). The bursts of popularity for such figures, quasi-celebrities who blend populist appeal and right-wing politics, are not new phenomena, but Gray thinks people should pay more attention to them to understand our current moment. “It’s hard to look at world history and not see a strange proclivity that our species has for fascism,” he said. “That’s an unbearable thought.”