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Moving Space Race Drama ‘First Man’ Is a Go for Launch This Oscar Season

Racking up three best picture Oscar nominations in a row is a tall order for legends, let alone 33-year-old wunderkinds, but Damien Chazelle is poised to get there with “First Man.”

The film, about the Gemini and Apollo space programs and specifically the Apollo 11 moon landing, is a slightly different gear than the innervated approaches to “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” however. It takes its time (all 140 minutes) digging into the headspace of astronaut Neil Armstrong after he and his wife Janet suffer an unconscionable tragedy early on. It’s a movie about a man holding pain deep within, and it builds to an emotional catharsis that reminds just how great Chazelle is at nailing the endings of his films. He knows how to send you out on a high. (The script this time was written by Oscar-winning “Spotlight” scribe Josh Singer.)

Technically, the film is a marvel, though it doesn’t look like a ton of money was thrown at it either. Much of the photography in the various launch and flight sequences is quite claustrophobic, never cutting outside the modules to give the viewer context or a breather. Chazelle saves that for his finale. All of that is in keeping with a clenched protagonist who wears absolutely nothing on his sleeve.

But the sound in these sequences is quite arresting. A filmmaker friend who saw an early cut some months back called it “‘Dunkirk’ in space,” and that kind of tracks. You’re right there with the astronauts. A 4DX presentation of the film would be kind of amazing, but you’d need a barf bag.

Speaking of sound, Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz’s score is half the emotional experience. It moves from propulsive and thrilling to elegiac and melancholic with ease. He can expect more recognition from his peers in a few months’ time.

Ryan Gosling’s performance as Armstrong is exactly what the roles calls for, a near-cipher, a stoic presence with a deep well of grief below the surface. As well, there is a clear drive to the man, an obvious passion for his work and for the missions that would ultimately propel the nation, the world, into the future. Passive performances can sometimes struggle when you have a vast body of people voting, though, so his Oscar fate is up in the air. But he did exactly what he needed to do.

Claire Foy, however, ought to easily nail down a supporting actress bid. She goes beyond the “suffering wife” trope, beyond similar roles in films like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13” to a fierce and wise place.

Overall — and not to get too far out in front here — the film could be good for nominations in the double-digits. It’s an inspiring tale, of course, and it’s treated with the proper awe and wonderment. A smattering of applause trickled through the Telluride audience Friday night when Armstrong intoned, “The eagle has landed.” It reminds of the pride we should feel every day that we actually did this. That’s what Chazelle set out to do from the beginning. “The hope is to put you in a mindset where it hasn’t happened yet, and it’s the most insane thing that a group has ever come together to do,” he told Variety just before launching into production.

Which makes all the fuss over the absence of a scene depicting the flag planting all the more asinine. This film drips with the spirit of a nation that achieved the goal laid out by its fallen leader in 1963. And the damn flag is right there, plain as day.

Take a break from looking for anti-American sentiment. “First Man” has none of it.

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