‘First Man’ soars even higher in Oscar race after Telluride screening

It may seem disrespectful to compare “First Man,” the upcoming film that goes out of its way to truthfully portray Neil Armstrong and the space program of the ‘60s, with “Star Wars,” which does not actually accurately render events a long time ago in a galaxy far away. But they do have one thing in common: a dedication to portraying space travel as very, very turbulent.

And so as you watch the harrowing opening scene, in which Armstrong’s aircraft accidentally bounces off the earth’s atmosphere, or any of the subsequent takeoffs of the Gemini and Apollo missions, all equally jarring, you might have an irreverent thought: These spaceships feel like neorealist versions of the Millennium Falcon — real-life “buckets of bolts.”

Director Damien Chazelle laughed when I mentioned this to him at a party Universal threw for the “First Man” team at the Telluride Film Festival. He knows his history of rough-versus-smooth flights in space films.

“What’s funny is that, of course, after [the beautiful, quiet elegance of] ‘2001,’ ‘Star Wars’ was kind of like, okay, how can we make this stuff dirty and junky? What was fascinating to me,” Chazelle told me, “was that if you look at the NASA program, you see where that idea in ‘Star Wars’ came from. These first planes and ships did feel kind of junky and handmade, and I find them beautiful, in a very weird way. So Nathan Crowley, our production designer, built all of them and tried to make them feel lived in, focusing on rivets and things like that, so you feel they’re actually made by people.”

“First Man” was a hit coming out of the Venice Film Festival, even before the creative team jetted over to the States for a North American premiere in Telluride a mere three days later. Smaller films may come to threaten it in the Best Picture race, but at least as big, widely released studio films go, “First Man” is enjoying front runner Oscar status, thanks in large part to just how much it brings vintage space travel back to a human scale… including the palpable feeling that any of NASA’s seminal missions could literally fall apart at any moment.

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Even more essential to making it all feel personal, of course, was the casting of Ryan Gosling as Armstrong. If you thought Gosling was the strong, silent type in “Drive,” that guy seems like a complete chatterbox compared to the new film’s portrayal of the first man on the moon as an utter introvert among his wisecracking contemporaries.

Screenwriter Josh Singer — an Oscar winner for “Spotlight” — wasn’t exactly charged with writing a silent movie… but close enough, when it came to Armstrong’s not overly verbose role. He took to the challenge of underwriting for his leading man and “letting the action speak rather than the words. I think with another actor we wouldn’t have done that,” Singer said, holding court in the back room of the Sheridan Bar Sunday night. “They always said (Armstrong) wouldn’t go towards you, but once you got to know him, you went towards him, and he’d eventually open up.”

Wyck Godfrey, one of the film’s producers, remembered “the very first time Damien came in and pitched us what he would do with the Neil Armstrong story, which was: ‘I actually want to ask the question, what do we ask of our heroes, and is it worth the price? — and let the audience decide.’ From a personal and a global standpoint, the obvious answer for a lot of us would be, f— yeah, it ‘s worth it! But obviously there’s a tremendous cost to Neil and (wife) Janet and the kids that made you want to ask that question, because you wonder if we still have that as a people. Are we willing to sacrifice what it takes to achieve really difficult things? Because we used to be able to, and I would love to think that we do have that tenacity and that ability to work on a problem for eight years across different congresses and presidencies to actually conquer problems.”

Speaking of politics… what about the controversy — which may or may not turn out to be a tempest in a teapot — that had right-wing pundits and even Ted Cruz carping about the lack of an explicit rendering of Armstrong planting the U.S. flag on the moon, based on initial reports out of Venice? Does “First Man” have a secret anti-patriotic agenda?

“That’s what I find so funny about this invented controversy from people that haven’t seen the film,” said Godfrey. “Like, guys, I’m from Tennessee, and my (producing) partner is from Texas. You couldn’t meet people more from the middle of the country to make the movie. This is the most unifying experience. It’s not political. We’re not saying it was a liberal or conservative thing — it was a worldwide, embraceable thing.”

Will the studio need to start screening the film for some of the conservative carpers to convince them that it really doesn’t have some kind of American anti-triumphalism agenda, after all the silliness of the punditry? “That’s what we’re going to have to do,” Godfrey told me. “We’re going to have to show it to them and be like, hey, we’re not gonna tell you what to think, just watch it.”

Justin Hurwitz, a double Oscar winner for his work on Chazelle’s previous movie, “La La Land,” didn’t write any original songs this time but found his longtime director friend every bit as motivated to get the composing in the can before the film even started shooting. It’s already been noted by many critics that the movie doesn’t underline the NASA missions with undue amounts of obvious rah-rah fervor, and keeping the score understated most of the time was key to that.

Said Hurwitz, “Even scenes that normally you would think would be all about the action… well, they are triumphant for sure. But with, like, that Apollo 11 launch, it’s big and orchestral, but Damien also wanted a lot of pain and loneliness in it as well. It’s not just all major (keys) and trumpet fanfares. Because everything Armstrong has lost along the way, everything he’s sacrificed – not just the people who have died, but his family he’s leaving behind – there’s pain in it.”

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A lot of films based on true stories in recent years have had their Oscar campaigns undercut at the last minute with media stories about how severely the facts were fudged. You won’t have to worry about that with “First Man”; screenwriter Singer, who was heralded for sticking fairly close to real events with both “Spotlight” and “The Post,” will be the first to tell you in great detail what is an exact transcription and what is a necessary dramatic fabrication. And “First Man” skews far more toward the former than fiction.

“We’re going to put out a book along with the movie — an annotated script book,” said Singer. “We have great pictures from the movie, but we also have a lot of description about ‘Here’s where we were 100 percent true and here’s where we fictionalized slightly and why.’ Because we all felt a ton of responsibility given the nature of this story and Neil as this icon to be true to the facts. And so we want to be clear about it from the top, so that’s what the book’s about.” Maybe they can send a copy to academy voters and Ted Cruz.

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