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Recalibrating the Oscar Expectations for First Man

I was so excited when I first heard that Damien Chazelle’s follow up to La La Land would be another collaboration with Ryan Gosling, depicting the life of Neil Armstrong. I have been anticipating First Man ever since that day, and my wife and I went to see it when it opened at our local theater.

As a biopic about a famous figure played by an A-list star and with an Oscar-winning director and an Oscar-winning writer, you couldn’t put together a better recipe for Oscar success than First Man on paper. However, upon its release, First Man hasn’t done so well at the box office. It opened with a $16.5 million weekend, and so far has brought in a total worldwide of $57.9 million against its $59 million production budget. Now, the film is sure to remain in theaters for a long time and will make far more than its budget in the long term, but the narrative has already been set – First Man was a box office dud.

So, the obvious question remains – what does that do to its lofty Oscar expectations?

Well, it would be naïve to say that the box office will have no effect. It does have an effect. All you have to do is look back to last year’s Blade Runner 2049 (also starring Gosling) to see a film with high Oscar expectation that was left out of the Best Picture race thanks to its middling box office returns. But I actually think that is the perfect comparison to give First Man a little bit of hope that its chances at winning Oscars are far from over.

Don’t Overlook the Tech Categories

With the ludicrous announcement from the Academy earlier this year that some below-the-line categories will begin being awarded during commercial breaks, some might be inclined to think of the tech categories as somehow “lesser awards.”

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Not so fast.

The tech categories – like Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing – showcase absolutely vital work in the art of filmmaking. One reason I love movies is that there are so many elements that can be used to communicate truth, and the masterful men and women who take home these awards showcase some of the best work in that regard.

Let’s go back to Blade Runner 2049 for a second, because I really do think it’s a solid comparison for any fans of First Man’s Oscar chances.

Again, BR2049 was a film with lofty expectations from the moment it was announced. You had Gosling as the star, the second installment of a critically-acclaimed series, and an Oscar-nominated director. Upon its release, it didn’t work so well with audiences. (Though it remains one of my personal favorite films from last year, and I saw it multiple times in the theater.) It went on to be shut out of the major Oscar categories, including Best Picture. Director Denis Villenueve himself said that the box office numbers were to blame for that.

However, the film went on to win Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects. The incredible technical achievements were too great for box office numbers to completely scare the Academy away.

I think the same thing will happen for First Man.

While many were hoping for it to be a player in the major races like Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, the low box office numbers may be enough to put a pause on that hype. However, I think it is clearly still a frontrunner in the sound categories, score, cinematography, and possibly even for its script.

When I saw A Quiet Place earlier this year, I thought that would clearly end up being my pick for both the Sound Editing and Sound Design Oscars by year’s end. But First Man’s sound was so gripping that I have amended my list. It is clearly the best example of sound editing and design for any film I’ve seen this year.

And then there’s Justin Hurwitz’s score.

I absolutely love the music in this film. The Academy has already given Hurwitz an Oscar (for his work on La La Land), and I would not be surprised to see him win another one here.

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography also bears mentioning. The way the scenes on earth are shot with a grainy quality while the scenes on the moon are perfectly clear adds a greater level of depth to the film.

And of course, Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle are big enough names that they could very well still sneak through into the nominations and maybe even win. The Oscar season is still young, folks.

However, with the box office numbers for the film as they are, I think you’d have to say that the odds are not in the film’s favor for the big name categories. But, no worries, there are still many other categories where First Man can compete, and I think it has a great shot to win one or two and possibly even more.

All that to say, despite the shaky launch, First Man’s Oscar chances still have hope for a successful mission.

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