Damien Chazelle is only 33 years old, but his first breakout film Whiplash scored a Best Picture Oscar nomination and three wins, while his follow-up feature La La Land was one of the major Oscar films of 2016, winning six Oscars in total including Best Actress for Emma Stone and Best Director for Chazelle. The filmmaker is back in the race in a big way this year with First Man, a chronicle of the years-long journey that led to the first moon landing, as seen through the eyes of astronaut Neil Armstrong. It’s Chazelle’s biggest and most ambitious project yet, and given his pedigree, one of the questions on everyone’s minds is, how big of an Oscar contender is it?
First Man premiered at the Venice Film Festival to positive reviews, and it just did the same at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I got a chance to check it out myself (you can read Matt Goldberg’s review here). Just two years ago at TIFF, La La Land took the festival by storm and was the film everyone was talking about. First Man is a bit of a different case—the film has a lot of admirers, but it’s landing with a reaction that’s a smidge less enthusiastic than La La Land.
But that’s not to say First Man isn’t an Oscar contender. It definitely is, in a myriad of categories, but I wouldn’t be expecting the same rapturous road that La La Land traveled. Although, the festival circuit is only the first step in a long Oscar campaign, so there’s a lot of road left to go and the film could certainly gain in stature in the coming months.
Right up front, it feels apt to note this is definitely a Best Picture nomination contender. It’s big and emotional to be sure, but it also checks a number of Academy boxes: biopic, movie star performance, esteemed pedigree in front of and behind the camera. Speaking of which, Chazelle’s direction is a standout and he could find himself in the nomination circle once again. First Man takes an ambitious approach to telling this story from the point of view of the astronauts, specifically Armstrong, and that involves putting the audience in their shoes as they board rickety, dangerous, and loud machines that will vault them into space with a fair chance they’ll die doing so.
Indeed, one of the throughlines of the film is death. It opens with the death of Armstrong’s daughter Karen, who passed away due to cancer at the age of 2. Her death affected Armstrong greatly, as did the many deaths of the various pilots and astronauts he befriended over the years. This looms large over Armstrong through the many trials and tribulations that led to Apollo 11, and Josh Singer’s script does a great job of keeping this at the forefront. It’s certainly a contender for a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination.
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the film is Ryan Gosling’s turn as Armstrong. This is not the type of showy, flashy, or cry-heavy performance that is usually a lock for Oscars. Instead, Gosling digs deep into Armstrong’s quiet, modest manner. It’s a very internal, subtle performance, and what Gosling does is nothing short of tremendous. Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of performance that could get overlooked for not being “actor-y” enough, so it’ll be interesting to see where he lands in the Best Actor field. If the film really goes over well, I expect it’ll happen.
Claire Foy does a swell job as Neil’s wife Janet, but the role doesn’t get too terribly complex—she’s forced to play the role of nagging/concerned wife quite a bit, but Foy does a lot with what she’s given here. She could be a contender for a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Cinematographer Linus Sandgren won for his stunning work on La La Land, but I expect his work on First Man is going to be a little controversial. He bathes the film in a gritty reality that serves Chazelle’s vision, but at times is a bit hard to make out (especially if you’re close to the screen). This is a film full of handheld close-ups that rock and shake with the ship, sometimes with only a tiny amount of light let in. Again, this is all in service of putting the audience inside the perspective of these astronauts, and in terms of craft servicing a vision, Sandgren’s work is terrific.
You can also probably check off the Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing categories, as well as Best Original Score for Justin Hurwitz’s excellent, theremin-infused soundtrack. Best Film Editing could also be in contention, but some of these categories will depend on how well the film is received overall. If First Man fades as the season goes on, I could see it missing a few of the major technical nods.
So yes, First Man is an Oscar contender—it’s terrifically crafted and well-acted—but I don’t think it’s the juggernaut that La La Land was. This one’s going to be in the conversation to be sure, but it remains to see where that conversation is going. There’s one scenario in which First Man really wins over voters and folks at the box office (which always helps), while there’s another where it’s shoved aside as just fine and “not as good as La La Land,” which could hinder its chances a bit. Regardless of which scenario occurs, I expect it’ll pick up at least a few major nominations.
As of right now, here’s where I think First Man has the best shot at scoring Oscar nominations:
- Best Picture
- Best Director
- Best Actor – Ryan Gosling
- Best Supporting Actress – Claire Foy
- Best Adapted Screenplay
- Best Cinematography
- Best Production Design
- Best Original Score
- Best Sound Editing
- Best Sound Mixing