Films like Hidden Figures tread a dangerous line. Oftentimes these Based On A True Story films (BOATS movies I call them) try too hard to be inspirational and fall into the mold of becoming too cheesy or pandering and ultimately get swept under the rug. Or, if they’re stories about minorities overcoming adversity they have a tendency to bite off more than they can chew and transcend beyond the story they are telling and leave their characters far behind. Thankfully, Hidden Figures finds itself perfectly snug between the two extremes, creating a very entertaining, inspirational film with an important message that doesn’t stray too far into being pedantic or preachy.
By this point, I’m sure you must have seen a trailer or commercial for this film, so you’re surely aware that the film outlines the story of three brilliant but previously unrecognized African-American women who worked at NASA at the height of the Space Race. The three women are played by three fantastically talented actresses, from left to right, Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae. Monae plays Mary Jackson, a woman who dreams of becoming the first black female engineer at NASA. Spencer plays Dorothy Vaugh, a woman who is trying her hardest to advance through the bureaucracy but is repeatedly quelled by institutional racism. Henson, who for all intents and purposes is the lead in this film, plays an unrivaled mathematician who struggled greatly to get her voice heard, despite many contributions towards propelling John Glenn to be the first man to orbit the moon. There is a lot of talk in Hollywood about finding strong, female roles for women. And believe me, I am all for more characters like this. But I think something that is even more impressive than simply showing that women can be strong, is showing that strong women can be flawed and broken as well. I suppose what I’m saying is I completely agree that we should shy away from two-dimensional female caricatures, I’d rather see more real female characters, than simply strong female characters. And for two out of the three of the performances in this film, that is true.
Henson carries the film very well. She handles herself realistically in the NASA scenes as someone who is in an eternal struggle between wanting recognition for the important work that she’s doing for the country, and really just being grateful that she’s given any work to do at all. Ultimately she consigns to the former and over her character arch we get to watch her come into her own as someone who is going to make her name heard as the influential person that she is. She goes toe to toe with Kevin Costner, the director of Langley, who might just be the only person there who truly sees her full potential, as well as Jim Parsons, a jealous mind who would like nothing less than to be outshone by a black woman. What truly rounds her character into becoming someone “real” as I was saying, is the glimpses we get into her life at home. She is a widow with three children whom she never gets to see because of the arduously long hours she works at Langley. There’s also a sweet little subplot of her being courted by a man who works for the national guard, played very sentimentally by Mahershala Ali, who exploded onto the scene this past year with his breakout performance in Moonlight.
Octavia Spencer might actually have given my favorite performance in this film, which is curious because she’s been sort of relegated to the third-most important slot by the screenplay. Her character has a very maternal quality towards her, as she takes the reigns as the leader of the “colored computer” division of Langley. Most of her development comes out in her interactions with the head of the white computers played by Kirsten Dunst. Dunst does a good job in her own right as the unconscionably racist foil to Spencer, although her southern accent changes a few times in the film from one area of the south to the other, but you really have to be listening for it to notice it. There’s a brilliant scene that occurs in a bathroom between these two characters that not only provides a great empowering exchange of dialogue but also serves as the thematic crux of the film. But once again, while Spencer’s character is undeniably strong, she’s also very well dimensioned. We witness her really dig into her frustration to a degree that we don’t really see the others quite reach.
Ultimately Janelle Monae is the actress with whom I have the most qualms with in this film. More times than not she felt like she was acting in a movie instead of providing me with genuine emotion or seeming like a well-realized person. She more than any of the others, felt the most preachy, I suppose. Not that the message she was delivering wasn’t one that needed to be heard, the way she delivered it didn’t feel realistic to me. I don’t consider this to be entirely her fault however, I’ve said it before, I think Monae is a very talented actress. No, I think the fault here lies in the script. For whatever reason, Monae’s character is very face value. She’s not given many moments to show her acting abilities, but rather at times is spoonfed expositional dialogue and given bloated monologues intentionally designed to be inspirational rather than imperative. In any other movie, she would be the shining star. But in this film alongside the powerhouses that are her costars, and given shallow and almost perfunctory dialogue, she seems more Golden Globes than Academy Awards.
There are other aspects of this film that I had complaints with. At times they would use CGI to create rockets flying through space and these effects didn’t always look as good as they could have. They looked very grainy, a trap many CGI artists fall into when trying to make machinery or masonry look realistic. I would have rather they simply foregone the computer-generated rockets completely and simply used archival footage of the launches, something that they utilized sparingly throughout the film. Nobody going to see this film was expecting to see Gravity, so they could have easily gotten by without needing to tackle something they couldn’t quite manage with the budget they had. The only part of this film that truly bothered me was the actor portraying John Glenn. His name is Glenn Powell, and while he was previously very entertaining in Everybody Wants Some!!, he really really got on my nerves in this film. He portrayed Glenn almost as if he were a high school quarterback who was trying very hard to get his great aunt to give him money to pay for college. He had this very smarmy, Joe College persona about him that was fine at first, but the more he was on screen the more it bothered me.
Ultimately, Hidden Figures is a much better film than most others in its genre. It has three very capable actresses in the lead, helping to carry the film out of traditional BOATS fare and into something a bit more transcendent. I don’t know how much staying power it will have in the long run, but at the moment, it’s certainly worth your time. The film is shot very well with lots of wide establishing shots of the inside of NASA. Something that I was very pleased to notice was how well edited this film was. It’s seamless in the way it goes from shot to shot, almost lyrical in that sense. The music in the film is very good as well. Hans Zimmer did the score, which as you might expect is very well composed, but the more exciting part of the film is the contemporary R&B music that underscores many sequences. Pharrell Williams lent a lot of work for this film, as well as Alicia Keys and it works very well in conjunction with the film. What I found really interesting about Williams’ music was similarly to how a composer will use light motifs in a score to recall a theme or a character, whoever curated the R&B songs to use in this film created a similar series of callbacks and motifs. In the end, I would recommend Hidden Figures to anyone who is looking for a good matinee film with smart performances, smart characters, and smart filmmaking. It doesn’t try to be something it’s not, but at the same time is more than it is.
– Ethan Brundeen
All images are from Hidden Figures, A 20th Century Fox film