2016 / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actress

Film #569: Hidden Figures (2016)

When reviewing Hell or High Water I wrote about how I was surprised how it garnered multiple Oscar nominations as it was a movie that just didn’t feel like it was made to win awards. The same cannot be said for Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures which is based on a true story, is set in the past, deals with social issues and sees its protagonists overcoming various barriers to provide that all important feelgood ending. Despite it being made up from all the elements that usually make me wince, I rather enjoyed Hidden Figures thanks in part to the well-crafted screenplay and the performances from the ensemble cast.

Hidden Figures has been adapted by Melfi and his co-writer Alison Schroeder from the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. It tells the story of the African-American women who worked as mathematicians at NASA and were pivotal to helping the US winning the space race. For the most part the film follows the life of Katherine Goble, a brilliant mathematician who becomes the first African-American female ever to work inside the Space Task group. Although she has a better mind than that of her superiors because of segregation laws she’s forced to spend about half an hour a day traipsing to the coloured restrooms and is later given her own coffee pot to drink from. But as the film goes on, Katherine begins to earn the respect of her co-workers most notably Al Harrison who rids NASA of its segregated areas primarily to increase productivity. Although I personally felt that Hidden Figures would’ve been better if it focused solely on Katherine, Melfi’s film also briefly tells the tale of two of her colleagues. Firstly, Mary Jackson who aspires to be an engineer but firstly has to fight her way through court to attend a night course that is only run at an all-white high school. There’s also the de facto leader of the girls; Dorothy Vaughan who is sick of being overlooked as supervisor of the computers and also is presented as one of the first NASA employees who actually worked out how to use the IBM machines that were installed to help with the calculations.

While I haven’t read the original source material I do feel as if equal time should have been given to telling Mary and Dorothy’s story as it was to Katherine’s. As it was Katherine took centre stage with the other two characters briefly coming forward anytime there was a bit of a lull in the main bulk of the narrative. This was particularly annoying as I found Mary’s story quite compelling and the fact that it ended fairly abruptly suggests to me that Melfi and Schroeder didn’t have enough time to properly tell her tale. Therefore, they should have just focused on Katherine’s struggles seeing as she gets the lion’s share of the screen time as the film focuses on both her professional and personal life. In my opinion the scenes outside NASA are Hidden Figures’ weakest with most of them being used to the story of Katherine’s budding relationship with her future husband Jim Johnson. I personally don’t believe the film would have suffered at all if Katherine and Jim’s romance storyline had been scrapped completely as I didn’t think it added anything to the ultimate outcome of the story. I thought that Hidden Figures was at its best when focusing on the mathematical aspect of the space mission and the trio’s attempts to overcome the hostility in the workplace that existed due to both their race and gender.

Although I’m being rather negative towards the film I did find myself relaxing into it rather quickly and I have to say the two hours flew by more so than a lot of the other movies that I’ve watched for this blog in the past. I thought across the board the performances in the film were spectacular with Taraji P Henson particularly shining in the role of Katherine. Playing the character as occasionally feisty but always respectful, Henson got the balance of her character right and allowed the audience to sympathise with Katherine almost immediately. Janelle Monae was also great as Mary and I believe she stole the show in the handful of scenes where her character was allowed to take centre stage. Oddly though it’s Octavia Spencer who has been recognised by the academy for her role as Dorothy Vaughan even though I felt that her performance was the weakest of the three. The only theory I’ve got is that Spencer is a former Oscar winner herself however I didn’t feel she particularly shone throughout the movie and she was little more than a utility player throughout the film. One thing I think the film was missing was any real bite, although segregation was a real issue for the women throughout the movie I didn’t feel there was enough conflict. The only real antagonists of Hidden Figures were played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst both of whom aren’t exactly that threatening and who are easily won over by our heroines before the end credits roll.

Overall Hidden Figures is one of those films that you expect to win awards and therefore it’s no surprise that it’s earned three Oscar nods. While it’s a competent film which is easy to watch there was no real moment throughout Hidden Figures that I found particularly moving which I believe is a problem. However, on the whole I did enjoy it and haven’t got a problem at all with being included in this year’s Best Picture line-up.


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