TL;DR – Hidden Figures is an amazing film about our past and very much relevant in our present, that when you oppress people it holds everyone back.
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Straight from the start, I should say I love movies about space, the history, NASA, the satellites, probes, and rockets, I watched the Curiosity landing even though it was very early in the morning here. So what I am saying is Hidden Figures, much like The Martian & The Dish, is a film that automatically peaks my interest before I make it to the cinema. This means that I have to be really careful when reviewing these films to make sure I am being objective and not just getting caught up in my joy of the subject material, but even with a cautious approach Hidden Figures still knocks it out of the park, or knocks it into orbit, or, wait no I think I am starting to mix metaphors here.
Hidden Figures is set back in 1961, The Soviet Union is putting Sputniks into space and America is playing catch up. Also, it is 1961 so a lot of America’s south is still segregated, yes this is not ancient history, during the lifetimes of many people alive today people in parts of America had to use different bathrooms based on the colour of their skin. Indeed it would not be until 1964 when that kind of discrimination would be banned by the Civil Rights Act, well at least official discrimination. So NASA is desperately trying to get a man into space and safely back to Earth and at every step, it is requiring engineering and math that has never been used before and at every step, the Soviets are beating them. This would be a great set up for a film even before you have the fact that this is all real life history.
From this, we are introduced to the triumvirate who are at the heart of the film, Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). The three are very close friends and computers at NASA in the west computer lab which is used by the coloured employees of NASA. But this is also a time of great transition, computers are about to be replaced by computers of the IBM kind, revolution and civil rights is in the air, and if we are going to the Moon we need to get to outer space first. Katherine is a maths natural, someone who lives and breathes numbers, Dorothy is a mathematician but also has a way with computer languages and deeply cares for her staff, and Mary is a natural engineer in a time where women, let alone coloured women were not meant to be engineers. One of the things that works so well is the rapport between the three leads, it is heartfelt, brutal at times, but also full of joy and love. There is a kind of playful banter between them which is so hard to fake, and it makes their interactions a joy to watch, the standout being the Church lunch where we are introduced to Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali this is a truly funny film. But as well as the more light-hearted moments, at several points throughout the film each of the leading cast have moments where they show their force of will in a system designed to stop them from achieving their goals.
Hidden Figures would not have worked as well as it did without the amazing comradery of its leading cast, indeed all the cast do their characters justice with amazing performances. From Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) the staunch, driven yet fair director of the Space Task Group, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) the far too sure of himself head engineer, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who does not see how she treats people, Jim Johnson and his not always smooth swagger, and John Glenn (Glen Powell) the astronaut they are trying to put into space, but also a top bloke. It is rare to see a whole cast kill it with their performances, but even the smaller roles in Hidden Figures still have powerful moments.
When you are doing a based on true event story, especially one dealing with a controversial subject matter (it shouldn’t be controversial but that is a story for another day) it is really important that you give genuine performances, because you want to be informative and not come off as preachy. Here Hidden Figures exiles because nothing feels forced, everything feels genuine, from Ms Mitchells constant refusal to treat Dorothy as an equal, even when she talks about there being no favourites at NASA, or Al’s annoyed frustration at discovering that the only bathroom Katherine can go to is across the campus. From the moment that sheriff appears at the start of the film when the ladies were stuck on the side of the road as their car had broken down set the tone for the rest of the film, because what should have been a welcomed help was instead turned into an interrogation, which of course has no bearing on America these days …
So when looking at a ‘Based on Ture Events’ kind of film you have to ask how close is it to the reality and how much is dramatised. However, much like The Dish, there are some people who are amalgamated into one character, and the bureaucracy of the NASA hierarchy has been simplified, and of course urgency is placed on events which in real life were not that urgent. But overall it gives a fairly accurate portrayal of the lives of the characters, of the space programme, and a very accurate portrayal of the world of 1961. Indeed this is one of Hidden Figure’s strength, from the costumes, to the cars, to the hair, to the technology on show, each detail has been carefully picked to be appropriate to the era. If I had one criticism it’s that it does hold back a little on some of the issues of segregation.
In the end, I highly recommend Hidden Figures It is a powerful film, but it is also an enlightening film, it has a strong cast and deals with some tough issues in a straightforward way. If you have the opportunity to go see it then I really think you should and it more than earned its Oscar nominations. If nothing else you should go watch it for that wonderfully awkward Church lunch scene, it will bring a smile to your face.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Theodore Melfi
Screenplay by – Theodore Melfi & Allison Schroeder
Based on – Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Music by – Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams & Benjamin Wallfisch
Cinematography by – Mandy Walker
Starring – Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell & Mahershala Ali
Rating – Australia: PG; Canada: G; NZ: PG; UK: na; USA: PG