Hidden Figures and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Theodore Melfi
FINALLY! How long did we get trailers for this movie before they finally settled on a release date in January of all months!? Well better late than never I suppose, and there’s been some seriously strong buzz prior to its nationwide release, so maybe the months of this trailer popping up in front of EVERY MOVIE will be worth it unlike other heavily promoted movies like The Secret Life of Pets. Remember how many times they showed THAT trailer? Almost ruined Downtown for me. ANYWAY!! Will this be a great way to start off this already rough year, or will this end up being a bigger let down than the Constellation program? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins in 1961 with three human computers (those were a thing apparently) who work at NASA but don’t quite get the credit they deserve for their work due almost entirely to them being women of color. Our intrepid heroes are Katherine Goble (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and they all get their chances to prove themselves once the government is gung ho about escalating the Space Race to beat the Russians to the moon! Well… sort of. Katherine gets assigned as a temp for the SUPER math department working with Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who is an amalgam of three real NASA directors from that period of time, and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who is completely made up and pretty much just symbolic of crappy people that Katherine had to deal with. Of course, she gets the grunt work, has to run to the colored restrooms (that was still a thing at the time) and was even given a separate coffee pot to use, despite the fact that she can number crunch circles around her coworkers. Meanwhile, Dorothy is trying to get in on the ground floor of computing as the new IBMs are gonna make the human computers irrelevant at some point, and Mary is trying to be a full time engineer at NASA but is constantly hit with discriminatory roadblocks that make it that much harder for her to achieve her dreams. None of that’s gonna stop ANY of these women though, as they’re smarter than everyone else and are out there to prove it! Will they be able to get a proper seat at the table as everyone is working towards the launch of Freindship 7 and in doing so ensure that John Glenn makes it back to Earth safely!? Well… okay, we KNOW that part considering he was still around as recently as a month ago, but that doesn’t make the journey any less compelling to watch!
I’ll say about this movie pretty much the same thing I did about Ghostbusters. It’s not perfect, particularly in the way it’s put together, but the leads are extremely talented and eminently charismatic which counts for a hell of a lot in something that will be a big deal to so many people. Sure, you could say it’s a bit gouache to compare a fictional movie about women struggling to be taken seriously in a tech field with one that’s based on REAL people who went through REAL struggles, but the movie doesn’t really take itself seriously enough that I would find the comparison to be inappropriate. It’s hokey, it’s very obvious with its symbolism, and I get the feeling that they’re taking a WHOLE lot of dramatic license here, but it never really detracts from the overall impact that the film has. It’s pretty damn awesome for a whole lot of reasons; not just for our three kickass leads, but because it’s full of science, hope, and fighting for your right to be seen as an equal… all things that we could really use right about now.
I may have compared it to Ghostbusters earlier, but in this movie’s best moments it reminds me more of The Martian, not only in the way it absolutely adores science, math, and all things space related, but in its optimistic and upbeat tone that keeps even the direst of situations from delving into complete despair. Of course, we once again run into the somewhat incongruous nature of this being BASED ON A TRUE STORY while still feeling very much like a MOVIE as the dire situations here are… well REAL things instead of Matt Damon still being stuck on another planet. The movie is very much focused on the personal stories of these three women (and by extension the other women of color at NASA) as they try to move up in a system that’s designed to keep them down, and it’s not even in an OVERT or OUT IN THE OPEN sort of way. The people at NASA aren’t calling them racial slurs or trying to scare them from speaking up. No, what they do is MUCH more insidious and reflective of how these things actually play out in the real world. So many awkward stares and sideways glances. People doing lousy things and they saying they’re just doing their job even if it’s clearly not fair. No one questioning the segregated bathrooms and cafeterias which are separate but certainly not equal. Hell, one of the biggest gut punches in the movie is when Katherine comes in on the second day after her temporary reassignment and someone (no one takes responsibility naturally) has set up a colored coffee pot which is much smaller than the one everyone else uses and doesn’t even have any coffee in it. All this is devastating stuff, but it’s still all taking place in this very stylized and broadly defined world which provides satisfying, even if clearly obtuse, moments of relief to counterbalance the harsh realities. After Katherine has her moment to air her legitimate (and accurate for the time) grievances about segregation at NASA and how awful it is in the way it dehumanizes her along with making it that much harder for her to do her job, Kevin Costner literally ends segregation in the entire facility overnight and even goes so far as to PERSONALLY destroy a symbolic indication of said segregation with a crowbar like he’s the Great White Hope version of Gordon Freeman. I don’t know about you, but to me that doesn’t sound like something that ACTUALLY would have happened back in 1961 and I haven’t found anything to indicate this was actually the case, though definitely correct me if I’m wrong here.
Now the tone issue isn’t all that hard to look past, but the biggest problems here, which are the film’s structure and the subplots that take place outside of NASA, aren’t as easy to ignore. Look, maybe it’s just me, but watching cherubic children show how much they love their parents or watching wholesome people go to church on Sunday just isn’t as interesting as watching them make rockets, and the movie ends up going a bit too far towards stylized unreality with most of the scenes at home with the aforementioned perfect children being an example of that. Even if you are someone who could get into the home life drama as much as the science stuff, there’s just not enough of it there to make it mean anything. Take for example Mahershala Ali who plays Katherine’s love interest in the movie. He’s charismatic in the part which makes him enjoyable to watch on screen, yet he gets MAYBE ten minutes of screen time total, and the subplot feels incredibly truncated. It’d be one thing if the scenes with him were incidental, but they’re supposed to be big emotional moments that should tug at the heartstrings, yet they don’t really get there because there’s not enough time for it to develop.
This can be applied to basically all the other story lines in here that aren’t focused squarely on Katherine’s struggles at NASA. The civil rights stuff comes and goes mostly through archive footage of Martin Luther King Jr playing on the TVs, the kids never develop beyond being perfect little angels (they don’t even have much to say about their mother remarrying or having to spend inordinate amounts of time at work), and I’ll even extend this problem to our two other leads; Dorthy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. Sure, the get more than anyone else in here NOT named Katherine, but there are long stretches in this movie where they’re storylines come to a standstill until the filmmakers finally make room for them to have a scene here and there. You could argue that wanting more from certain characters is the best kind of problem to have, but it comes off more like they weren’t too committed about how to portion out the screen time in the movie, and it almost feels like the overwhelming focus on Taraji P Henson was a last minute call and hastily edited into the movie. You’re telling me we couldn’t cut out one of her pee runs to give Mary a few more chances to show just how awesome of an engineer she is, or of Dorothy schooling all these white dudes with her awesome Fortran skills!?
Despite the flaws in the way the movie is put together and a BIT of a tonal dissonance with this being based on a true story (KEVIN COSTNER WILL DESTROY ALL BARRIERS FOR WOMEN FO COLOR!), it’s strength lies in the immense joy and passion that comes through in every frame of the movie; not just for one of my favorite subjects (SPACESHIP!) but just in the fact that a movie with this cast about this subject even gets to exist. Hell, I can’t even recall the last movie I saw that was THIS much about women of color, let alone one that’s manages to be this much fun despite the heavy subject matter that’s constantly weighing on the characters (and by extension the audience) throughout the movie. You should definitely go out and see this movie; not just for its awesome messages and giant rockets, but because it’s a really great time! Hell, we’re in JANUARY so it’s not like we should expect anything BETTER anytime soon.
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