Summary: Hidden Figures is the story of three Black women working at NASA during the 1960s Space Race. Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) is a mathematics expert assigned to the group charged with doing the calculations that help keep Americans in space as she struggles with the prejudices of her fellow Engineers and the institutions around her with her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is attempting to take her rightful place as Supervisor of the Computers (the women who run the math for NASA) and keep ahead of the curve. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) seeks to be allowed to take classes and earn the title of Engineer.
Ahh, what are you to do when you love basically everything about a film except the actual filmmaking?
Hidden Figures, which tells the stories of the many Black women who contributed to the eventual American success in space, is telling an important story that encourages an audience that doesn’t get those sort of stories told. Space travel is the kind of challenge for the greater good that we’re sorely missing these days, which means I’ve got a total soft spot for it. The cast is amazing, wringing every bit of charm they can out of every moment, even if they’re not surprising.
It’s a shame that they all this had to be pulled together by human sledgehammer Theodore Melfi.
Look, it’s absolutely not bad. On the contrary, this is a major crowd pleaser that’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch. I’ve gotta admire a prestige picture with a line 30 minutes in advance and something like six applause breaks. This movie works very much in spite of the instincts that are involved in putting it together.
And by “works very much in spite of the instincts that are involved in putting it together,” I really mean “stars Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Mahershala Ali, and Taraji Henson.” This is the kind of cast that dreams are made of, a cast that’s completely able to sell the material with charm and talent pretty much regardless of what’s happening.
Let’s get the lowest and the highest out of the way up front. Taraji Henson is good here, but she never seems to be able to really find a naturalistic way into the character. It’s a quiet overacting, a lot of ticks and repeated big moments that add up to an incredibly charming if not overly complex performance.
On the other hand, Janelle Monae is a bonafide movie star. You believe basically everything she does. You can’t take your eyes off her on screen. She’s complex and compelling at every step. Just the kind of person you want to see on the silver screen.
And everyone else therein ranges from good to great. Mahershala Ali continues having the best year of his career. Octavia Spencer is a national treasure and the kind of person you just naturally root for. Then there’s the rest of the cast who all get the job done better than anyone could expect. A few obvious characters, like Racist Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Kevin Costner’s “White Guy Who Discovers Racism And Will Have No Part Of That, THANK YOU” character that he’s going to surprisingly often these days.
Sigh, I hope someone loves me one day as much as Kevin Costner loves a script where he gets to be on the right side of history.
The only interesting figure among the supporting cast is Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell, who’s sort of the avatar of how institutional racism works in this movie. She’s never openly horrible, no slurs or denials. Just not going to stick her neck out and try to change a biased system, even when people ask her for the smallest favors. The system is what it is, she’s just following rules.
Which the film makes clear when she says “I’m just following the rules here.” And as every character outlines their specific thoughts and motivations and the historical meaning of what they’re doing.
Look, Hidden Figures is not a movie of subtlety. Which is absolutely fine, it’s not designed for that, it’s a big crowd pleaser of a movie. But it also means this movie tends to underline its point to excess, there’s nothing that can’t be done two or three times and really pushed in on to make sure. It’s written so that you can’t miss a thing and so that every point it’s making is crystal clear.
It’s just an unfortunately obvious film. I’m not asking that this be a subtle or difficult picture, that’s not its purpose. But with a cast this talented and a story this interesting, why not try for a little extra, why not try to go past the prestige biopic conventions? Why not trust your audience and why not really go for something thoughtful or different? We’re up for it, we can handle it. I think Melfi just ends up handling this material without any grace, and leaves it all up to the cast to save it.
And save it they do. The cast takes this from a potential whiff to something engaging and worth your time. But I can’t help but see where this could have been better and where it could have gone wrong.