Monday, January 23, 2017

'Hidden Figures' review

It's honestly astonishing that there was a period of time when 20th Century Fox didn't have Hidden Figures set for an awards season release. The film was initially placed on the January calendar, but after the positive reception to the first trailer, Fox moved quickly to do a special event at the Toronto International Film Festival, eventually deciding to platform it in December as an awards-qualifying run. Unsurprisingly, Theodore Melfi's film has been dominant at the box office and on the awards circuit. Hidden Figures has raked in $84.2 million, and it's in prime shape to receive a slew of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, on Tuesday. It's the kind of effective crowd-pleaser that just screams "awards bait," but while that term can often have a negative connotation, I can't imagine many people expressing anything but adoration for this joyful, thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment. Hidden Figures is just impossible to dislike, an important slice of history told to great effect by a talented crew of performers. Better films have debuted in theaters over the last few months, but few feel quite as delightfully old-fashioned as the untold story of the space program of the early 1960s.

Hidden Figures follows three brilliant NASA mathematicians- Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae)- who are held back by their gender and the color of their skin in 1961 Virginia. The women are some of the best computers in the game, and as the film opens, they're each trying to prove themselves in their own way. Dorothy is consistently denied a supervisor job by Ms. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), even though she's clearly doing the necessary work for the position. She finds a home working with the International Business Machines (IBM), hoping to find a path to success. On the other hand, Mary desperately wants to be an engineer, and despite resistance from many in the program, she fights for the right to take the classes she needs for a degree.

However, the main story centers around Katherine, who is given a chance to work with the Space Task Group in the mission to get a man into space. At the start of the film, the Russians are winning the space race, and NASA chief Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) desperately wants to put a man into orbit. The astronauts, led by the charming John Glenn (Glen Powell), are ready to roll- but the math just isn't there yet. Katherine is recruited for her knowledge in analytical geometry, but she soon becomes a powerful figure in the department. And yet, despite her mathematical prowess, Katherine still finds a significant amount of push back from her co-workers, especially Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). As NASA gets closer to putting a man into space, the women behind one of America's greatest achievements will put themselves at the forefront of the action, fighting for equality and progress with their unique genius.

Hidden Figures is a very familiar film, but its magic charm is that it manages to overcome that almost by sheer force of will. It dabbles in cliches at first, and yet the story eventually unfolds in such a way that the conventionality evaporates before our eyes. This is one of the rare films that just gets better and better as it goes along, and while Hidden Figures is a tad lengthy, there's a feeling of fulfillment and joy at the conclusion that very few movies are able to accomplish. It combines the nostalgic pop sensibilities of a space race drama (think Apollo 13) with the sense of frustration and injustice that comes with a civil rights film, creating a beautiful confection that manages to inspire, enlighten, and entertain. The classical approach might seem like a bad idea on paper, but there's a sense of comfort and gratification that comes with watching such an important story told so well.

With the recent trend of excellent biopics of famous African-American heroes, we've seen some unflinching portrayals of racism, brutality, and heinous inequality. Films like Straight Outta Compton, Selma, and 12 Years A Slave have all shown us a very ugly side of the history of our country, and they all include moments that are as disturbing and angering as anything in modern cinema. Hidden Figures is not that kind of film, but at the same time, it very much is. It's aimed at a family-friendly audience, so there are never any graphic displays of racial epithets or horrific violence. Instead, director Theodore Melfi shows us the equally loathsome displays of subtle discrimination that occurred during the Jim Crow era. Dorothy and Mary are both denied positions that they are clearly qualified for. Katherine has to run a half mile just to use the bathroom at her new position, and she's denied access to important information for an absurdly lengthy amount of time. Talented women of color are relegated to computing positions with rare opportunities for advancement. Even up until the climax of the film, Melfi shows us these injustices and it really strikes an interesting chord.

"Every time we try to get ahead, they move the finish line," says Mary during a critical moment, giving us what seems to be the common theme of the film that helped the filmmakers craft their approach. Melfi knows that he doesn't have a movie with the blunt force impact of something like Ava DuVernay's Selma. He knows that the subject matter is something with a broader general audience appeal. So despite the overall crowd-pleasing effect of the film, he balances the obvious gender and racial dynamics of the story with some really understated work that connects on a deeper level. I felt a deep sense of anger at many points, and I have to imagine that anyone who sees this film will feel the same. He creates a world where systematic oppression and unfair social dynamics have held back the careers of brilliant women, and when the moments of deep rage are unleashed, it's cathartic and incredibly powerful. Some may say that he skirted around the issues with a film that seems to almost directly appeal to families (why is that a bad thing? Kids need civil rights stories too), but don't ever make the mistake of doubting this film's effectiveness.

The work by Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder is superb, but Hidden Figures works so terrifically because of the characters at the center of its story, likable, hard-working individuals who have been slighted by an unjust system. The writing gives the actresses a huge boost, but make no mistake- they dominate this movie and make these characters their own. Taraji P. Henson carries the heaviest amount of responsibility as Katherine, clearly established in the opening moments as the focal point of the film. Henson is great at conveying both deep vulnerability and profound strength, growing and developing as a character throughout the course of the story. Henson's Katherine never changes as a person at her core, but the way she interacts with her co-workers continually shifts before she hits a boiling point. When she finally stands up to the entire Task Group, Henson delivers a true Oscar moment that would have surely nabbed her a nomination in a less competitive year.

Janelle Monae proved her acting might with her outstanding performance in Moonlight, and she's even better as the feisty, but endlessly lovable Mary Jackson. She has this confidence and a contempt for the status quo that gives her character a distinct contrast to Katherine, and it works very well. However, out of the lead trio, Octavia Spencer is mostly likely to snag a nomination for her dynamic portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan. Spencer has such a commanding screen presence, and she's a natural in a part that seems to be made for her. In addition, Kevin Costner is excellent as Al Harrison, the determined NASA boss who gains a deep respect for Katherine as the film goes on. He's a wild card in the Supporting Actor race, and I'd love to see him get in. Props should also go to Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons, who all do great work in the film. This is one of the best ensembles of the year, and I can easily see this cast taking home the SAG award.

Hidden Figures made me feel good. It made me feel hopeful and optimistic. It even inspired me in a unique way. Sure, it makes a few mistakes along the way- it's a tad too lengthy and crowded to ever achieve true greatness. Nonetheless, there's a sense of cinematic satisfaction that reminded me of how powerful a purely good movie can be. Everything about Hidden Figures is lovely, pleasant, and endlessly appealing. Somehow, it even managed to remind me of some of the films that I watched as a kid, movies that really got me to love cinema. Maybe it was just the Apollo 13 connection, but I think it just proves how much I enjoyed this breakout hit. It's a rousing, deeply rewarding piece of entertainment that hits all the right notes. Crowd-pleasers don't get much better than this.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.2/10)

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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