Telluride: 'First Man' Launches Into Serious Oscar Contention

It looks likely that this Neil Armstrong biopic will become 33-year-old phenom Damien Chazelle's third film in a row to land a best picture Oscar nomination.
Ryan Gosling in 'First Man'

Two years ago, the first Damien Chazelle-Ryan Gosling collaboration, La La Land, was launched into serious Oscar contention by a successful North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival that came right on the heels of a successful world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Now, their second collaboration, First Man, a drama about lesser known aspects of the life and work of astronaut Neil Armstrong, appears to be following the same trajectory.

The crowd at Friday evening's Herzog Theatre screening of the massively ambitious film seemed riveted for all 140 minutes of its running time, and offered a healthy dose of applause when it ended.

Just hours earlier, the film became engulfed in a ridiculous "scandal," with Sen. Marco Rubio, among others, complaining that it doesn't feature a scene depicting Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon. But most of the people expressing outrage haven't seen the film yet; and anyone who comes away after seeing it with the feeling that it is not celebratory of America needs to get his or her eyes examined.

Chazelle has now made three A-grade movies by the age of 33, with First Man arriving on the heels of 2014's Whiplash and La La Land, both of which landed best picture Oscar nominations; the same is true of only a very few other filmmakers, such as Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg. In each case, there is really only one explanation: genius.

First Man, which comes less than a year before the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, explores the personal and professional tragedies that shaped Armstrong. Those not alive a half-century ago, who have been weaned on only the highlights of space exploration, will be surprised to learn just how many NASA failures — some deadly, and hitting close to home for Armstrong — paved the way for him to take, on July 16, 1969, one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Even before those events, Armstrong, who died in 2012, was a quiet and introspective person, and he only became more so as they unfolded. That low-key nature precluded Gosling from doing showy acting with a capital A, and in some ways makes his performance all the more impressive. I expect that a best actor nomination may account for one of many nods for the film. I fully expect recognition in the categories of picture and director, and probably also supporting actress (The Crown's Claire Foy makes the most of 'the wife' role). Film editor Tom Cross, an Oscar winner for Whiplash, and composer Justin Hurwitz, a double Oscar winner for La La Land, help to maintain the tension of the story, even though we all essentially know the story's ending, and are likely to be acknowledged. And still other noms could come for cinematography, production design (it's incredible to see the relatively primitive sort of equipment and technology with which Armstrong had to work), sound editing and sound mixing (take those two to the bank) and visual effects (which are never not convincing). A major caveat: The film's resonance with voters could be undercut by seeing it on a screener.

Space-set movies are sometimes overlooked in the screenplay categories — for instance, while 1995's Apollo 13 landed an adapted screenplay nom, 2013's Gravity was denied an original screenplay nom — but a strong case can be made that Spotlight Oscar winner Josh Singer deserves a nom for his adaptation of James R. Hansen's book of the same name. He packs a ton of information into the film without ever making it seem like exposition, which, with a story like this, cannot have been easy.

It will be interesting to hear what Armstrong's two fellow Apollo 11 crewmates, 87-year-old Michael Collins and 88-year-old Buzz Aldrin, say about the picture. Aldrin is depicted as a bit of an arrogant hothead, which he may well have been. But endorsements from them would be a boon for the film. Perhaps less helpful: the fact that an original series about space exploration, starring Sean Penn and titled — wait for it — The First, hits Hulu on Sept. 14.

First Man will be released nationwide on Oct. 12 by Universal.