Hidden Figures (2016)

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There seems to be a film about space released every single year – and they range from being great (Gravity), to mediocre (Interstellar) to terrible (Passengers) – yet, these are films mostly set in space. What about what goes on down here on Earth, the people and stories of NASA? There have been a few that tell of the people that help get astronauts into space, but very often they take a backseat. Hidden Figures is a film that changes it this way, concentrating on three individuals who work for NASA. However, that isn’t quite what makes Hidden Figures an interesting film – it is the fact that those three individuals are three women of colour, who helped put a man into space and in some small way, contributed both to The Space Race, but also to the growing Civil Rights Movement.

The three people at the centre of Hidden Figures (which is set in 1961) are Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) a brilliant mathematician that is widely seen as being one of the best minds at NASA, yet doesn’t receive the respect that comes with such a reputation, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a hardworking mathematician who wants to rise to the position of supervisor (something impossible at that point for a woman of colour) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a tenacious and spunky woman who wants to become an engineer, also something deemed impossible by society (not only for a person of colour, but also for a woman). The core of the story is about NASA’s attempts to put a man into space, with the stories of Goble, Vaughan and Jackson structured around it.

The three stories, all factually accurate for the most part (there are some historical inaccuracies, such as chronological errors), show the changing mindset and social upheavel that was taking place in the 1960s, and interestingly it shows a very different kind of portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement, with references to the more popularly-known Civil Rights events (lunch counter sit-ins, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. etc.) being kept to brief references, with Hidden Figures rather showing the stories of these three ladies – and even though it is only about a few individuals, it does manage to display the change in society.

Now interestingly, Hidden Figures has three very good performances in it, and some outright awful performances. Thankfully, the great performances come from the three leading actresses. Taraji P. Henson is such an extraordinary actress, and while she managed to acquire fame, popularity and rabid adoration through her performance on Empire, she gives a completely different kind of performance here. Her performance as Katherine is sweet, sensitive and touching, and she is the heart and soul of this film and manages to give the character the exact blend of brilliance and likability. I really do think Henson is one of the best actresses working today, and she bring such wonderful charisma to everything she does. Hidden Figures is just another extraordinary performance from Henson, who has a lot of talent and uses it very well in choosing interesting and diverse projects.

I don’t usually like it when singers try acting, but I have to say that Janelle Monáe is one of the few exceptions where not only is she a wonderful singer, she is also an amazing actress, and her performance as Mary Jackson is hilarious, emotionally resonant and very entertaining. Octavia Spencer is lovely as Dorothy Vaughan, the more maternal and mature of the trio, and she brings a lot of depth to her performance, playing the role of the mother wanting a better life for her and her children wonderfully. The three performances are wonderful and Henson, Spencer and Monáe are dedicated to their performances and that is wonderful to see, and hey manage to rise above the film’s sometimes mediocre filmmaking and narrative flaws.

There is something fascinating about Hidden Figures – despite being about three people who were undeniably geniuses, it doesn’t present them as anti-social, distant milquetoasts without social skills or a life outside their work (which seems to be the tendency with many films featuring intelligent characters) – they are shown as realistic and interesting characters, with their own struggles and issues, and shows the humanity contained within these characters. It would have been so easy to just resort to stereotype, but it was a much smarter decision to show these characters in a far more honest light, and that is one way that Hidden Figures is better than I expected.

Talking about portrayals of geniuses as anti-social figures, Jim Parsons is in this film. I have seen Jim Parsons in a few other projects as well – and he always plays the same character, the anti-social, sarcastic and rather unlikable intellectual. It is this kind of performance that has kept him on The Big Bang Theory for ten years. Parsons seems to be completely unable to display any range or acting talent outside of this kind of role, so here’s my suggestion to him – just stick to playing Sheldon Cooper. He’s made himself rich off the role, and he’s good at it and has his fans. An added bonus is that if he keeps playing Sheldon Cooper, I don’t have to see him in anything, because I don’t really have the intention of watching The Big Bang Theory, since it has gone from a charming and entertaining show to the very definition of why network comedy is becoming weaker and weaker. I never thought I’d dedicate an entire paragraph of a review to Jim Parsons, but if he is going to try and take these kinds of roles that just rely on the same tricks that have made him the highest paid actor on television, then he deserves to be criticized – and please don’t say that he is offered these kinds of roles only – I am pretty sure there are a dozen independent filmmakers that would love to have Parson and his distinctive look in their film, but because they don’t pay as well as a studio film like Hidden Figures, I don’t expect Parsons will want to waste his time. At least Simon Helberg tried to do something different in Florence Foster Jenkins.

Kevin Costner is also in this film, and once again he seems to play the same kind of role here that he always does…the role of Kevin Costner. A character that could have been radically interesting is just bogged down by the same vanilla performance from Costner. Mahershala Ali is in this film as well, and while I can’t say he’s a bad actor, I have to say that I wish he would have a bit more fun and choose some lighter projects. Of course we couldn’t expect a laugh-fest from Moonlight, but here in Hidden Figures, a film that is very funny and lighthearted for the most part, he seems far too serious – it almost appears like he was still in the incredibly serious mindset of Moonlight here. Ali is going to have a great career, and one can’t say that he doesn’t choose interesting projects – I just want to see a bit more from him, because I know he has it in him to be a big star. Kirsten Dunst pops up every now and then, and then goes away again, only to return later.

Hidden Figures is a good film – and while it does suffer from some narrative issues (such as a very strong first act, a dreadfully slow second act and an underwhelmingly simple third act), it is still a crowd-pleasing film that is the very definition of a feel-good movie. Watch this film for the three lead performances, and be entertained by some of the god-awful, bland performances from other members of the cast. It is an entertaining, sweet little film that tells an important story and manages to be funny and touching at the same time. It may not be a great film, but it is certainly a fun one.

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