A moving drama starring Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Anne Hathaway premiered to cheers at Cannes, charting what director James Gray on Friday called the moment when America lost its way.
“Armageddon Time”, which also features Jeremy Strong from TV’s “Succession“, is a semi-autobiographical story set in the New York borough of Queens in 1980, just as the Trump family and Ronald Reagan were on the rise.
Gray said 1980, with Reagan’s election, the looming threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, his hero Muhammad Ali’s “humiliating” loss to Larry Holmes and the murder of John Lennon in Manhattan gave the film its title.
“I also believe that was the beginning of a Market-is-God idea where, if you look at the rise of inequality as a world issue, it began around 1979, 1980,” he told reporters, calling it an “underrated inflection point in history”.
Gray said it was also the end of auteur-driven New Hollywood movies in favour of blockbusters, “which meant the end of the certain type of film that I really love and feel very passionate about and feel an obligation to try and continue”.
The intimate family drama probes big political and historical issues, as the clan of descendants of Ukrainian Jews who fell victim to the pogroms encounter an America riven, decades later, by racial and economic injustice.
Hopkins plays the doting grandfather of Paul, who keeps running into trouble at his middle school with his best friend Johnny, a black boy. Although both kids cut up in class, it is only Johnny who faces serious consequences, as Paul’s mother (Hathaway) is on the parent-teacher council.
The boys’ paths continue to diverge as Paul’s father (Strong) pulls him out of school and puts him in a private academy where Fred Trump — Donald’s father — is on the board.
The elite institution sees its mission as creating America’s next generation of leaders — a site of “superpower privilege”, Gray said.
Strong, who won an Emmy for his portrayal in “Succession” as the troubled scion of a powerful media dynasty, said he saw parallels between the themes of the series and the movie.
“The television show I work on is in so many ways about late-stage capitalism and terminal decadence in the United States,” he said.
“Certainly you can find the kind of prefiguration of all of that — in a way the genome of it — in this film.”
Hathaway said her own Jewish mother-in-law, who died recently, had served as an inspiration for her character, who out of deep love for her son makes a series of moral compromises.
“Her legacy influences my life in profound ways that I am truly, truly grateful for,” Hathaway said, fighting back tears.
“If I have done one thing in terms of capturing the depth of that love and that connection … I won’t even attempt to put it into words because it is beyond (words) and that’s why I’m so grateful to cinema because it allows you to say things without words.”
It is Gray’s sixth outing in Cannes, where he premiered such films as “We Own the Night” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg and “Two Lovers” with Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow.
He went on to make space odyssey “Ad Astra” with Brad Pitt and the Amazon adventure “The Lost City of Z” featuring Robert Pattinson.
Critics gave the new movie rave reviews. Slate hailed “a sweet childhood fable that turns increasingly bitter and, with the help of some historical figures, becomes about the monstrous things we do in the name of wanting the best for our kids”.
The Irish Times cheered a “memory tale that addresses the compromises so many of us make with an unequal society”, calling Hopkins “wonderful in the rare role of a wholly good man”.
“Armageddon Time” is among 21 films vying for Cannes’s Palme d’Or top prize, to be awarded on May 28.