What do celebrated astronaut Neil Armstrong and disgraced former presidential candidate Gary Hart have in common? A lot, actually, at least as portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Hugh Jackman, respectively, in “First Man” and “The Front Runner.” These films from directors Damien Chazelle and Jason Reitman hardly look like two sides of the same coin on the surface, but they made for a hell of a double feature for those of us at the Telluride Film Festival who chose to spend the opening night Friday camped out at the Werner Herzog Cinema.
Basically, both the rocket man and the politician are emotionally constipated guys who resent the part of being a public figure that demands you parade your private life in front of the press. But Armstrong and Hart also have a hard time just even having a private life, too, at least when it comes to interacting with their long-suffering wives: their public reticence mirrors a private coolness, too, that’s hard to fathom. Other than that, the two of them don’t exactly follow similar trajectories: Gosling is quiet and terse on the way to blasting off to the moon and Jackman has plenty of explosive outbursts as he spirals ever downward amid a sex scandal. One goes from zero to hero, and the other … well, you know.
I feel like I made the right choice in choosing to see these two Friday at Telluride. “First Man” was a hot-as-rockets pick getting its North American premiere here after bowing in Venice just two days earlier. “The Front Runner,” meanwhile, had its world premiere as a Telluride late show after, well, flying more or less under the radar up till now. There may be things to love or not love about either movie, but there’s no doubting you’re in the hands of a bravura filmmaker in both instances. And watching Gosling and Jackman so expertly at work raises the eternal question: Is it harder to win an Oscar, or a nomination, when you’re playing somebody who spends basically an entire movie out of touch with himself? If you really love acting, watching somebody who hasn’t learned to love himself may be the greatest movie love of all.
I realize I just made it sound like a complete cinch, picking these two movies to start the festival off with (not counting the secret afternoon patrons’ screening, which turned out to be Robert Redford as a geezer deeply and lovably at ease with himself in “The Old Man and the Gun”). But Telluride is full of nothing if not constant tough choices, often made on the spur of the moment. I came within a hare’s breath of picking a different double feature at the Palm, another 650-seat venue on the other end of the small mountain town — which, again, would have involved a U.S. premiere directly following serious Venice buzz, followed by a world premiere. That pairing was Alfonso Cuaron‘s black-and-white Mexico memoir “Roma” (unspooling as part of the festival’s tribute to Cuaron) and Nicole Kidman as a troubled cop in Karyn Kusama‘s “Destroyer.” “Roma” seems particularly tantalizing because, well, who wouldn’t like to see a foreign-language film contending for Best Picture and not just Best Foreign Language Film, as hopes are going? And Telluride’s executive director Julie Huntsinger sold me on “Destroyer” when she said she’d chosen a late-show shot for the police suspenser’s global bow “on purpose. It’s a cool noir movie you should be watching at 10:30 at night.” I’m hoping it still plays well when I get to it Saturday afternoon.
Huntsinger’s press briefing was full of interesting tidbits. (A media conference at Telluride is not a massive thing, by the way. There were about 30 journalists and critics on hand, reflecting the fact that, compared to other festivals, Telluride is relatively difficult and expensive to get to — and there are no media comps on the passes.) She addressed why Gosling wasn’t here, to join his pal Emma Stone, who’s on hand with “The Favourite,” after their “La La Land” got off to a spectacular start here two years ago: His mother is renewing her vows in Italy, so he stayed over after Venice. If you love Telluride like we do, it sounds like a weak excuse, but OK. She got in a slight dig at Venice as she talked about how tired another veteran of “La La Land,” director Chazelle, looked. “You know who doesn’t look chipper?” Huntsinger asked, referring to the “First Man” filmmaker, who’d just flown in. “When we were planning this out, they weren’t even going to go to Venice. I said, ‘Damien, you know how much you hate that whole ridiculous trip. You want every minute here you can get!’ But Universal insisted.” (In introducing the film Friday, Chazelle said they’d finished “First Man” at the last minute, or five days prior, to be exact.)
Huntsinger also talked about the intrigue involved in getting Swedish-Iranian director Ali Abbasi to Telluride this year… an intrigue that almost rivals the failed attempt to show the Aretha Franklin documentary three years ago. His film “Border won the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes earlier this year. (Huntsinger was on that jury at that non-rival film festival.) But when it came to coming to America, “Ali was born in Iran, and Iranians cannot legally enter this country, because of the travel ban,” she explained. So the festival got involved in some serious lobbying, dealing with both senators and members of the House of Representatives to get Abbasi into the U.S. Some feathers were ruffled along the way. “Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (a Democrat) told me I was calling all the wrong Democratic people and I was gonna piss Trump off.” Somehow their efforts worked and Abbasi is here and not threatening the republic.
In introducing “The Front Runner,” Jackman said, “It is a dream for me to be here. It’s my first time here at the festival. When I said to Jason [who previously premiered “Juno,” “Up in the Air” and “Labor Day” here], ‘Give me one sentence: What makes Telluride different from anywhere else?,’ he said, ‘People here love movies. That’s it. That’s all I have to say.'”
And we love them as fast as we can. It will all be over in a flash, so the press and everyone else have to make decisions wisely. The brevity of the three-and-a-half-day festival is unparalleled at any comparable gathering of the film intelligentsia. There was a great joke made right before “First Man” became the first film to officially show in the Herzog Cinema Friday night: “Welcome to the closing weekend of the 45th annual Telluride Film Festival!” quipped the venue’s emcee.