Directed by Theodore Melfi
Wow, what a breath of fresh air this movie was after having watched Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight over the last couple nights. Saying nothing ill of either of those films; they certainly don’t lift your spirits. Hidden Figures is nothing if not a hopeful film and was just the palate cleanser I needed.
Like Hacksaw Ridge, another Oscar contender, this is a film based on real events. Set during the time of the space race it centres around three African American women working at NASA. It’s got a brilliant opening scene that will make you fall in love with these woman right from the get-go. You immediately get a taste of their fun banter and how close of a friendship that they have. You are left wanting more. Which would basically be my only gripe. The movie could have done with a few more scenes of the three of them on screen together, if only because of how great of a trio they are. But it’s hardly worth mentioning because each one of them have an engaging story of their own to follow, even if most of the screen time is given to Taraji P. Henson’s character of Katherine G. Johnson.
The rest of the cast is made up of familiar faces all doing some great work. Kevin Costner is right at home as the tough NASA big wig who demands the most from his staff, along with Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons who embody the entrenched status quo of the era. Mahershala Ali, who’s having a huge year, also appears, along with Janelle Monáe and Best Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spencer. And without a single poor performance between them, this cast stands apart from the rest of the nominees as being particularly well put together.
The film itself is just so much fun. With a funky soundtrack from Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer the movie hums along with only the occasional break in tone to underline some of the hardships that women, particularly African American Women, were going through during that time. It’s really a strange dichotomy between the wonderfully positive aspects of science, especially at NASA, and the normalized bigotry and racism that permeated America. You want to be proud of what scientists at NASA were doing but you were constantly sickened by the way they treated our main characters.
It’s hard to know what kind of creative liberties they took with the story that might differ from what really happened but Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson each had extremely satisfying character arcs that concluded in a way that seemed believable. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughn and her story in particular stood out to me. Facing the reality of computers making her job obsolete, she took the initiative and adapted to what was coming so that she was ready for the new technological reality. Something that I think is particularly relevant today with so many people facing a similar challenge as AI and automation become capable of replacing human workers.
Hidden Figures is a film with a lot of character. It’s quirky and fun but is capable of being serious when it needs to be. All in service of exposing an important truth about the history of the space program. It’s important to be reminded about the realities of the people in the trenches when thinking about these larger than life moments. The movie is able to balance that and remain immensely optimistic. Reminding us that above all else hard work is recognized, even if life isn't always fair.
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