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Make the Case: ‘First Man’ Deserves a Visual Effects Oscar

(And some more respect, while we’re at it)

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

No one at The Ringer holds an Oscar vote, but we hold lots of opinions. Every day ahead of the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, one of us will share those opinions about who or what ought to win a little golden man. And since we so rarely get what we want at the Oscars, let our “Make the Case” series stand as the official record on the matter.

If the Oscars were a true meritocracy, First Man would be up for more awards. In a more just timeline, I might be making the case for Claire Foy’s heroic uphill fight against the Understanding Wife in her performance as Janet Armstrong, or for the swooning, elegiac theremin ballads that make up much of Justin Hurwitz’s score. Instead, we live in a world where the good people at Universal dropped Damien Chazelle’s La La Land follow-up directly in the wake of a movie designed to print box office receipts, and after that, Academy Awards. If even A Star Is Born can stall out before the big night, what chance did a deliberately understated biopic of Neil Armstrong, even one headlined by Ryan Gosling, ever stand?

Fortunately, the collective name recognition of First Man’s principals—the director of Whiplash! The writer of Spotlight! The star of feminist memes!—was enough to earn it some technical recognition. These are the awards obscure enough to the general public that the Academy briefly considered shunting a revolving group of them to commercial breaks before its membership objected. But they’re also in the categories that best demonstrate how First Man distinguishes itself from both an overcrowded genre and its heavyweight competition: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Production Design, and Visual Effects. They’re unassuming honors, the kind most casual viewers need distinguished for them by evergreen explainers. But First Man is an unassuming movie, making its Oscar slate an oddly fitting opportunity to argue its merits.

Under the rubric of this series, I’ll narrow my focus to a single award: Visual Effects. This is both the category most legible to those outside the sound-editing-and-or-mixing community and the one in which the contrast between First Man and its fellow contenders is most stark. Where other nominees for Production Design include fellow prestige fare like Roma and The Favourite, First Man is the sole Visual Effects nominee that is not an act of IP engineering. Moreover, it’s one of just two that’s not a product of the same sprawling corporation. Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Christopher Robin are each part of a machine within a machine—Marvel, Star Wars, and Winnie the Pooh all prospering under the larger Disney umbrella. Ready Player One, meanwhile, is a book adaptation that may not yet be a franchise, but invokes so many in the name of ’80s homage that the distinction might as well be moot.

With a $60 million production budget, First Man is hardly a shoestring indie; this wasn’t La La Land, whose hyperspeed production necessitated a guerilla shoot on a Los Angeles landmark. Held up against the nine-figure tallies for Solo or Infinity War, however, First Man achieved comparable results in the eyes of the Academy with dramatically less to work with. The disparity is not unlike the plots of the movies themselves: in Solo, the characters go to space with an entire, intergalactic system set up to make it happen. In First Man, the characters go to space with a bunch of tin cans and their own superhuman resolve. That feat in and of itself might be worth rewarding, though First Man builds on it by achieving a seamless mind-meld between Chazelle’s technical prowess and screenwriter Josh Singer’s themes.

I have several friends who declined to see First Man on grounds of redundancy: In 2018, who has the time to see another space movie, or relatedly, another “steely-jawed white guy does a thing” movie? I don’t blame them; that defiantly behind-the-times name, though borrowed from the James R. Hansen book on which Singer’s script is based, is quite the branding hurdle to overcome. And though the film’s intentions are good, it doesn’t always navigate the razor-thin line between a story about a man whose sadness motivates him to do amazing things while neglecting his loved ones and a subversion of the same. On the one hand, there’s the pointed inclusion of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” which questions the dedication of so much time and resources to space travel when so many problems remain here on Earth. On the other, there’s Claire Foy yelling that Armstrong and his colleagues are “a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood,” which became something of a meme in part because it’s textbook Oscar Wife stuff. (All due respect to Glenn Close, the titular Oscar Wife.)

It’s in First Man’s visual execution that the movie is most successful, at once awestruck by the accomplishments of its protagonists and skeptical of the motivations that led to them. Most space movies, including recent Visual Effects honorees Gravity and Interstellar, emphasize the majesty of the unknown. Even when Sandra Bullock’s shipwrecked explorer is at her most desperate, the effect of Alfonso Cuarón’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is to overwhelm the viewer with wizardry. The scale, from the views to the heroism, is always larger-than-life. After all, that’s sort of the point of stories about astronauts: they’re a very small, very special tribe of humans who’ve earned the chance to see and do things humans aren’t meant to.

First Man’s story works in reverse, taking almost mythological figures and shrinking them back down to a size we can understand, and maybe even pity. The writing does this by framing Armstrong’s psychology around the tragic death of his daughter. The filmmaking does this by showing exactly how dangerous it was to bust through the atmosphere at a time when the height of fictional technology was having a phone in your car. By showing the sheer precarity of Armstrong’s mission, First Man prompts the same questions as Free Solo, another document of death-defying antics released this past year. What kind of person chooses to do something like this? Are we supposed to admire them, or is concern a more suitable response? Did they do what they did because they felt they had to for the greater good, or because it was satisfying some deeper, more selfish urge?

There are only a handful of flight scenes in First Man. The first one isn’t even in space: Armstrong, then a test pilot, navigates an X-15 over the Mojave desert. Yet even without the additional difficulty of surpassing gravity entirely and fending for oneself in an infinite vacuum, Armstrong’s flirtation with death is enough to stop your heart and dampen your palms. It’s a pattern that recurs several times throughout the movie, each time with a lower chance of survival. The camera shakes. The radio and the engines blur into a roar. Throughout it all, Gosling’s face remains implacable. It’s enough to make you forget you not only know how this story ends, but that the ending is one of the most widely shared images in human history. The miracle, and the madness, of the moon landing has been dulled by repetition. First Man restores its impact, much of it in the form of nausea.

While the word “space” typically invokes the future, First Man anchors itself in the past. Every test flight and Gemini mission is geared toward reminding the viewer that all this is happening in the 1960s, when many adult Americans had been born in homes without electricity and the invention of GPS was still decades away; the X-15 scene takes place the same year as Hidden Figures, which showed NASA employees doing complex math by hand. And where most special effects try to be seamless, the whole point of First Man’s is to show the seams in its protagonists’ master plan. The vehicles are small and rickety; the flight is, under the best of circumstances, bumpy; the barrier preventing an astronaut from being incinerated or spinning out into space is terrifyingly thin. Armstrong narrowly avoids both fates in separate scenes. In another, his colleagues aren’t so lucky, a burst of violence Chazelle makes shocking without being lurid.

While its conclusion may be foregone, the final scenes of First Man are everything the preceding two hours are not. Singer fuses the film’s two arcs by making the moon the site of a fictional, almost magical realist act of mourning by Armstrong for his daughter. Chazelle conveys this sense of hard-won inner peace by rendering the moon as a dead-quiet open expanse. Held up against the tight confines and deafening noise both Armstrong and the audience have endured to get there, it’s a reprieve, and possibly a reward. The sight of an American flag planted on the surface of an extraterrestrial body has long been a source of national pride. First Man turns it into a personal reckoning. In the process, it shows special effects can be just as intimate as they usually are impersonal.