Review: Hidden Figures
There are three major subsets of the science fiction genre; Those that start with fantasy driven narratives like Star Wars, Star Trek, etc., Tangential scientific driven fiction with the likes of 2001: a Space Odyssey, Altman’s oft overlooked Countdown, Gravity and Interstellar. However, the truly fascinating films chronicle the times when technology helps achieve our dreams; the real stories of pilots breaking the sound barrier, early Apollo missions, and of course the moon landing.
While pictures like The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and the HBO series From the Earth to the Moon loyally recall the pioneering members of space travel. Hidden Figures reveal that history has (yet again) overshadowed the historical contributions of African American women. Their work was central to the success of NASA’s 1961 Friendship 7 satellite, a pivotal mission that successfully sent John Glenn into space, as the first astronaut to orbit the earth. Thanks to the collective efforts of mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and fiery computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), they not only struggled with all-encompassing racial segregation, but the rigors of proving themselves in a competitive and critical workforce.
Hidden Figures is a well made, well intended, emotionally felt drama about an overlooked chapter in the history of America's space race amid the racial tides of the early sixties. Spencer, Monae, and Henson are magnificent on screen, they carry charisma, chemistry, and energy. There’s no shortage of vibrancy with this cast, and for the malleable realization Hidden Figures is a thoughtful crowd pleaser that confronts the reprehensible stain of America's past. The film also concurrently reconciles that transgression by embracing our country's spirit of advancement and pursuit of national triumph.
It works because writer-director Theodore Melfi tailors a script that utilizes the true story of these collective achievements as a springboard for the advancement of equal rights and desegregation. While its crux lies in the revelatory nature of the true story of three amazing women, Hidden Figures focuses mainly on Mary Jackson’s involvement with the Friendship 7 endeavor; throughout the film I was enamored by the collective achievements of the headlining trio, this script could have been crowded and at times it felt like bit off more than it could chew and in lesser hands the density of the material could have quaked but the film outsmarts what could have been it’s own shortcoming.
Articulating the fight for advancement finds an unlikely ally with a flat top, tie sporting Task Group Space director Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner. Costner has the straightlaced fortitude we’d expect from someone under the gun at the height of the space race; his advocacy for desegregation is telling in that he’s there to get a job done. What happens is an expected meltdown Taraji P. Henson who’s rightfully frustrated but not defeated, these women embody strength and intelligence throughout. Harrison repeats himself, but there’s nothing simple about articulating the mathematical points in astrodynamics, it hits all the right points without pandering or oversimplifying the material.
It might be easy to overlook the technical achievement of Hidden Figures but the color palette in the set design, paired outfits, costumes, and sets the film in the proper time. The period speaks for itself without the slathered on veneer of atmosphere that dramas of this kind tend to overemphasize with regard to the sixties era. As for the music, Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams deliver a truly beautiful soundtrack and score; contemporary, classic, funky, witty and valuably upbeat; these tonal vibrations take off with hope and promise.
Hidden Figures does something rare, telling an inspiring true story in the midst of America's past ignorance. In the end, we come out with an unadulterated message of hope; superseding racism, ignorance, not in direct conflict but in unity, working toward a common goal. It feels good to see a film radiating with emotion and positivity for a change and I think we could all use a little bit more of that these days.