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Hidden Figures
USA 2016
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Running time 127 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
2 stars


Synopsis: The story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) - three brilliant African-American women who worked for NASA in the Sixties, particularly during Alan Shepherd’s Mercury flight and John Glenn’s Freedom 7 orbit of the Earth. Despite their brilliance, they must still overcome the racist and sexist attitudes of the times; in particular Dorothy’s relationship with supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) and Katherine’s friction with egocentric co-worker Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and their demanding boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner)

There’s no disputing that the stories of these three remarkable women demand to be told. In fact each probably deserves a movie in their own right – and that’s part of the problem. In trying to tell these three parallel stories, someone inevitable loses out. There’s a pecking order that seems to go Katherine (the mathematical genius) then Dorothy (the IBM expert) and finally Mary (the engineer who had to win a court case in order to go to night school). So, while Katherine gets the main stage, we need to keep checking in with the other stories which inevitably feel truncated, disappointingly abridged and ultimately insulting. The screenplay would probably have been better developed as a longer, more thoughtful TV mini-series but it feels like the lure of having such prime Oscar-bait was too much for the producers.

Which brings us to the second problem and that’s what happens to true stories in Hollywood movies. In the case of this one, there’s a powerful story to be told here about racism and sexism and the constrictions of opportunity for those who deserve a lot better …  and it is, but they so over-egg the pudding that the power ends up being dissipated. The other Hollywood effect is the need to give us a triumphantly feel-good story which, this obviously is, but the ingratiating way in which serious issues of racism in particular are dealt with seems to offer resolutions that are far too easy and, in some case, down-right implausible. And the bottom line is that the racist and sexist attitudes that these women overcame were not confronted on moral grounds or on the basis of human or civil rights – but because they had big brains that the predominantly white men in NASA wanted to exploit in order to win the Space Race. So when we’re offered pat and heart-warming moments of reconciliation at the end, the turn-around from characters who’ve exhibited ingrained racist attitudes throughout the film feels hollow and contrived.

That said, the performances from the three women are strong and engaging both individually and as a trio (Melfi and Alison Schroeder’s screenplay has them cast as contemporaries and close pals even though their true ages and working life at NASA doesn’t quite line up so neatly). They may not be familiar names, but their faces are well-known: Taraji Henson from the cable-TV hit, Empire; Octavia Spencer picked up a best supporting actress Oscar in 2011 for The Help and Janelle Monae is currently playing a role in fellow Oscar contender Moonlight with Mahershala Ali who also has a small role in Hidden Figures as Katherine’s love interest. The rest of the cast is mostly unremarkable. Dunst is predictably coiled and brittle as the very proper white lady trying to deal with a department of thirty black women. Costner is serviceable as Harrison although he seems to be walking through the role. The surprise is Jim Parsons (of Big Bang Theory fame) who elevates himself as the not-quite-golden-boy who can’t deal with being outshone by a black woman.

Melfi demonstrated his ability to make heart-warming, feel-good movies with 2014’s St Vincent and it has to be said that here he’s made an enjoyable, light and entertaining film. It’s just that its subject matter deserves so much more  The Right Stuff it ain’t!

 

 

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