Film Review: 'Hidden Figures'
It's often debated whether art is created in response to life, or if life happens in response to art. It's the chicken-or-the-egg question of the arts.
This year, we've seen that art has been created in response to life when it comes to two big movies: Moonlight, the emotionally gripping tale of a young boy growing up on rough streets, and Hidden Figures, a feel-good biographical drama of three African-American female mathematicians at NASA during the 1961 space race - just before the start of the Civil Rights Movement.
READ MORE: Film Review: 'Moonlight'
Our titular figures come in a trio: there's Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, of Empire fame), an insanely bright and forward-thinking mind, and a single mother of three to boot; she is bookended by fellow "human computers" Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, up for her second Oscar this year) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). As lifelong friends, they are drawn to getting America into space in spite of the fact that their colleagues frequently look down on them simply because of the color of their skin. And that makes their climb that much more difficult; when Mary is hypothetically asked what she would do to become an engineer as a white male, she responds "I wouldn't have to - I'd already be one."
Among the staff at NASA are Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the head of NASA's Space Task Group where Katherine is assigned to work, and head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), with a wit as sharp as Parson's Big Bang Theory counterpart. They run an incredibly tight ship, albeit a segregated one; Kathrine has to get her coffee from a separate pot that nobody in the staff will touch, and because the building has no colored bathrooms, she has to sprint outside - her mountains of paperwork in tow - to the next building just to use one. Meanwhile, Mary has to fight for her right to take engineering courses at an all-white college, and Dorothy still has to clarify with NASA's staff that she is in charge of maintaining the new IBM computers, not cleaning the room that holds them.
It's a rough, obstacle-laden climb to the top for these women, who also mention that every time they get a chance to move ahead, the finish line is moved for them. These scenes are emotionally igniting to the point where we are placed right in their shoes, as is director Theodore Melfi's intention. What's more, Henson, Spencer, and Monae are all incredibly effective in their roles, bringing added vitality to a space mission where well-ingrained stories have already been told. The film is an unequivocally lauding tribute to these three women whom, if America were without, the country would have almost certainly come out on the losing end of the space race. It's because of their contributions that they are true American heroes, and they certainly deserve a movie that honors their accomplishments.
Things are nicely supplemented with an uppity, soul-filled soundtrack that keeps things moving along at an upbeat pace, and it fits incredibly well with the women's stories of triumph and struggle, big and small. There's even a touching romantic subplot filled in, as Katherine is romanced by Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, also fromMoonlight), which is an especially touching aside to the main show.
However, the big issue is that while the movie is undoubtedly serviceable, every single component of the film is specifically tailored to show you just how special our three heroes are - a strategy that does, on occasion, become taxing. From choices as large as costume design and score to as small as one-liners in the dialogue, Hidden Figures hardly cool its jets enough to let these powerful and inspirational characters speak for themselves.
Hidden Figures is certainly trying to be a panacea for heightened racial tensions in the country - it's art created in response to life, and it's as noble of a cause as it is to honor these three incredible women. At the same time, however, it's incredibly plain just how much Hollywood has massaged the events to turn the film into an unequivocal crowd-pleaser; as a result, the movie comes off feeling incredibly preachy. In Hidden Figures, there is absolutely no subtlety.
Because its appeal its so broad, Hidden Figures is the most accessible out of any movie in the Oscars slate. It's a decent, feel-good crowd pleaser meant to put an often overlooked part of America history in the limelight, inspiring others to break boundaries just as the three women did. Yet unlike Moonlight, which used emotionally compelling and quietly powerful storytelling to let the story open up on its own, Hidden Figures beats every drum and rings every bell it possibly can, and the resulting cacophony can sometimes be a little overwhelming.
Rated PG-13. 127 minutes.
Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (screenplay) and Margot Lee Shetterly (based on the book by).
Directed by Theodore Melfi.
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, and Kevin Costner.