Perhaps it would be a touch cynical of me to say that, after the furore of the #OscarsSoWhite brigade last year, we were bound to see a few films centring on black casts and black actors making a showing this year – after all, Oscars go to films built to win them, not necessarily the best ones. A counterpoint, then, is that they’ve all been really good – Fences and Moonlight have boasted some of the strongest acting of the year, without a doubt. Hidden Figures follows in their footsteps – whilst it lacks some of the depths of those films, it is a solidly-made and very enjoyable piece of drama.
Hidden Figures follows the stories of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), three brilliant African-American women working at NASA at the height of the space race. The three are called upon to help out with one of the greatest operations in history – the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence and helped to galvanise the free world. However, it is not all smooth sailing for the visionary trio – they must cross gender and race lines as they prove their worth to the scientists and inspire future generations to dream big.
This is a story which few could really claim to have been familiar with, but it makes for compelling viewing. It’s a true story (for a change!), yet it manages to be as inspirational and feel good as it tries to be. On paper, a historical film about a maths genius sounds dry as anything, but it is a genuinely warm and lively tale, even as one that offers a well-rounded picture of institutional racism and the divisions of the era. It suffers from a lack of surprise, in part because its true nature means we’re always heading towards a particular endpoint, and in part because this type of film doesn’t offer up any shock twists along the way.
Hidden Figures mainly focuses on the three lead actresses, and they make for three likeable and easily watchable performances. Henson is a pleasant anchor as the clever optimist, with little touches of overacting (a style which suits this picture) until she delivers an angry speech that really spells out the racial barriers of this world. Spencer is the no-nonsense type who knows to make herself indispensable when the threat of a new computer appears, and Monae goes through (in my opinion) the best character arc as the wise ass pushing to become an engineer in face of oppression.
The time and development on these three main characters means the rest of the characters are somewhat under-fleshed out. Only Kevin Costner really gets any development – he plays Al Harrison, the manager of the Space Task Group, who is too distracted by the science to notice the discrimination going on in his division. This kind-of grizzled mentor role really suits him, even if his journey to enlightenment is somewhat heavy-handed (removing the separate bathrooms, Costner growls ‘At NASA, we all pee the same colour!’). Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons get little to do – they are thinly-sketched authority types, opposing our leads but little else (there is the hint of an interesting suggestion with Dunst – as a woman, she has faced discrimination, but she doesn’t really understand it at all – but it’s never really picked up on).
Hidden Figures is a solid and enjoyable piece of entertainment – it isn’t really anything ground-breaking (except, perhaps, in subject matter), but it proves that flash isn’t everything. Here, we have three great performances and a captivating story, and it proves to be an uplifting watch – what more can you ask for?
Director: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson (Katherine G. Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monae (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford)
Running Time: 127 Mins
Image credit: http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/hidden-figures