Small, Important Steps for Mankind
Hidden Figures is a historical biopic/drama, directed by Theodore Melfi and starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as three African-American women working at NASA during the 1960s. Set in the Russian-American space-race era, Hidden Figures follows the lives of these three friends as they strive not only to excel in their respective assignments at NASA, but to do so under the discriminatory scrutiny of their co-workers in a white-dominated and often hostile work environment. Following the successful launch of Russia’s Sputnik II into space, the friends part ways at work, Katherine (Henson) being sent to the Space Task Group to perform complex calculations on spacecraft trajectories, Mary (Monáe) to the engineering unit, and Dorothy (Spencer) remaining in the computing group. Their stories are threaded not only by their friendship, but by the many attempts of NASA to send a man into space and orbit the Earth, culminating in a climatic attempt by astronaut John Glenn to circle the Earth seven times.
January releases are generally known to be either the metaphoric garbage of Hollywood, or Oscar movies going into wide release. And based on the recent nominations, Hidden Figures definitely seems to belong to the latter category. With 3 nominations including one for Best Picture, director Theodore Melfi, who chose to direct this film over the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, has surely rocketed himself into the limelight with this film. Having not heard of the film before December, I was excited to see if the film stands a chance at the upcoming Academy Awards, or if it’ll likely be hidden under the weight of the other Oscar hard-hitters.
Hidden Figures is above all else, an uplifting, inspirational film. Although it may seem strange to call the film Hidden Figures (not exactly a marketing-friendly name), once the credits roll, the name makes perfect sense. Its consistent pace, smart writing and sound editing as well as the incredibly strong performances by the three main actresses made this film a joy to watch. Though the rest of the cast is not as consistent, and the life events depicted are relatively simple compared to other biopics, it is the well-written and acted scenes that form the film’s strong core, keeping one’s eyes glued to the screen.
Running to the Oscars
Let’s talk about Hidden Figure’s main strength: Its cast. One could be fooled into thinking that the Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer is the film’s best actress due to her 2017 supporting actress nomination. But in truth, Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine and Janelle Monáe’s Mary are equally good, if not better characters. The chemistry between the three felt real and comforting, as their sassy banter made for many a smile during their group scenes. Individually, each brought a sound gravitas and unique personality to her performance, inviting the audience to care for their ambitions and their struggles to achieve them. No one executed this as well as Taraji P. Henson, whose powerful performance as a brilliant mathematician who is continuously looked down on by her co-workers was arguably one of the top lead actress performances of the 2016-2017 Oscar season. Her spunk and perseverance at work as well as the warmth and love she exudes to her family at home lay the foundations for what is easily the best character arc in the film. Octavia Spencer also puts in a solid performance as a computing department head who is struggling to be promoted when a game-changing opportunity presents itself. That said, her scenes are not as memorable as Janelle Monáe’s, who might have just stolen the film with a hair-raising, Oscar-worthy monologue in the second act. And to think that the first time I saw her was in a .fun music video! Also a notable mention is Katherine’s boss Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner), who is a comforting presence on screen despite playing the conventional tough boss that goes out of his way to help the ostracised main character. But at the end of the day, the three ladies you see on the poster are what the film is about, and Hidden Figures manages to balance their storylines with confidence.
Allison Schroeder and Theo Melfi’s written dialogue is mostly razor sharp, and this is enhanced with clean editing that keeps the film’s momentum strong from scene to scene. While certain conversations seem slightly pretentious in the sense that one wonders if it really unfolded that way in real life, the dialogue flows well for the most part, whether it’s in the cold, shiny glean of the NASA offices, or the homey, warm textures of the characters’ homes. A nice element of the film which was surprisingly entertaining was the sequence(s) in which Katherine runs between buildings in heels, a recurring scene in which we get snippets of Pharrell Williams’ song ‘Running’, a high-tempo tune to match Katherine’s frantic running.
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Moving the Finishing Line
As for flaws, it’s probably a crime to say anything negative about such an inherently positive film. Jim Parsons of the Big Bang Theory fame plays Katherine’s mean supervisor Paul Stafford, who is either a racist, a misogynist or both. It wouldn’t be an issue for many viewers, but Parsons’ great fame as Sheldon Cooper unfortunately works against him as he doesn’t move sufficiently away from his TV show character, incidentally also a mean and insensitive scientist. This meant that every time he showed up on screen, I was transported out from the 60s and straight back to the present day, raising the question of whether the studio cast Parsons to get butts into seats or because he was genuinely the most suitable actor they could find. That said, the other acting performances significantly compensate for this small personal gripe.
If you are a fan of biopics, especially those that don’t end with the protagonists’ untimely demise, then seek out Hidden Figures, a three-in-one biopic blend which oozes charisma, energy and the spirit of fighting for your ambitions. Is it one of those ‘Oscar-bait’ movies? Maybe. But it’s a fine, feel-good film, period. Will it beat out its Oscar competition? With the likes of La La Land and Moonlight in the Best Picture category, and the almost definite success of Viola Davis in the supporting actress category, it seems that Hidden Figures’ only chance lies in the Best Adapted Screenplay race, where Moonlight, Arrival and Fences are still huge threats and are likely to be favoured over Hidden Figures. On a positive note, the film has recently won a Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble cast, indicating that Academy voters haven’t lost sight of Hidden Figures completely. Above all else, the impact that Hidden Figures provides is one of perspective. In a troubled time for many Americans, the film is a message that inspiration and hope can be found in places we never thought to look, and that aiming for greatness is only a matter of the mind. A choice to be made, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
Overall Score: 8.3/10