Review: Hidden Figures

A stirring story based on real-life, I found Hidden Figures quite an inspiring story of intelligence against prejudice, that unfortunately makes standard Hollywood mistakes.

Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) work as human ‘computers’ at NASA in the 1960s, but face the constant barriers of racial segregation. When Katherine receives a promotion to the Space Task Group under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), her incredible aptitude mirrors the rise of her and her friends within NASA, as they begin to try and leave discrimination behind while helping get an American into space.

It’s heartening to think that amidst the civil rights battle, NASA of all organisations was waking up to the idiocy. This means the movie follows what could be said to be a stereotypical line at times in terms of the women and their battle for recognition and equality, but the script by director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder mixes up the original (non-fiction) book by Margot Lee Shetterly with some cinematic drama (and laughs). Adapting real-life in such a situation is fraught with difficulties and sensitivity, but by most accounts it appears they did a good job.

This does fall down a little, particularly featuring Costner’s (fictional) Al Harrison, one of those odd characters in Hollywood’s “civil rights era”. He is basically the “not-so-prejudicial” white person who serves to show others how racist they are. It’s a strange quirk that Hollywood believes white people watching should feel good about these (often fictional) figures, probably because they don’t want the American audience to feel alienated. This is despite the fact a GREAT deal of people thought and continue to think that way! What the script and direction do achieve is to bring home that NASA’s aims, in many ways, transcended boundaries in society, and that inspirational side is spot-on – not over-the-top, but perfectly measured (besides Costner and a few other, smaller scenes).

the_official_poster_for_the_film_hidden_figures_2016

Katherine is the de-facto heroine, whose MENSA-level intellect couples with a growing resentment, the actress expertly portraying awkwardness and growing confidence as she gets her chance to prove herself, as well as her fury at her treatment from white colleagues. Her gradual transformation is also well developed by the actress, who is the best of the three. Monáe is sparky and impressive as Jackson, the youngest and simmering with injustice that her intelligence and chances of progression are dictated by race, and I would have liked some more of her storyline, because the real Mary made history with her achievements, and she feels a little underrepresented. The musician is very good in what I would imagine is the first role of many.

Octavia Spencer brings a world-weary but humourous perspective to Dorothy, constantly overlooked for a supervisor role despite the fact she already does the work. The actress doesn’t really have much to do beyond bring humour at the onset (alongside Monáe, it has to be said), but her developing interactions with Kirsten Dunst’s withering manager are underlined by a steeliness, and she cleverly portrays Dorothy’s fierce intelligence and forward-thinking, spotting and taking advantage of an opportunity in the future of computing for her and her fellow workers.

Costner is quietly stoic and brings some gruff charm and amenability to the “inspirational” role, whilst Dunst brings ice-cold chilliness to a woman who would rather the status quo not change too much, offering a welcome and harsher departure from her previous films. The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons essentially turns in a more reserved and prejudicial version of his super nerd, as the genius that Katherine competes and battles with, while Mahershala Ali tempers his usual macho persona with sensitive touches as Katherine’s love interest. Finally, Glenn Powell has a hard job as John Glenn, the actor doing well in a very limited number of scenes to portray the astronaut’s straight-headed, colour-blind approach, a worthwhile testament to the recently-passed pioneer.

The music, by Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams, is at turns funky fun and dramatically reserved when needs be, though the singer-songwriter couldn’t resist throwing in some of his own singing, and this actually feels anachronistic. This is a shame, because the remainder of the score shows promise in its balance between the composer and popstar. The movie also feels very authentically of its time in terms of staging and costumes, with cinematographer Mandy Walker matching the iconic era’s styles both formally and informally at the NASA site and in the three women’s homes.

I felt Hidden Figures did try too hard to meet Hollywood civil rights stereotypes, when it could have given us the real story. These three struggled and won out in the end with their intelligence, and the film could do more than fall into the obvious traps. However, it’s a good film with some fine performances that honour the women and their hard-fought achievements.

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