Review by Paul Preston
The three lead characters of Theodore Melfi’s new drama Hidden Figures are already starting below scratch in 1961 by being both black and women. From this underprivileged position, they attempt to make a name for themselves at NASA during America’s development of the Apollo space missions. The result is a wholly likeable movie with vibrant lead performances.
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and singer Janelle Monae play Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, respectively, who, despite the cultural pushback, pursue lofty positions. Katherine wishes to be a flight research expert, plotting trajectories for the likes of John Glenn’s manned mission to space. Dorothy teaches herself the ways of the computer (at its ground floor) to make herself more valuable, and Mary knows she needs a higher education, so she sets out to be the first black person to attend a segregated college for an engineering degree.
The struggle is real in every scene of Hidden Figures. You think America, you think, “Dream it, pursue it”. Not in the ‘60s. Every effort encountered resistance whether it was in the form of threatened male co-workers or simply a situation where using the bathroom was a challenge due to your race-assigned bathroom being on the other side of the large NASA complex.
It’s a shame it takes a man’s approval to eventually grant women equality, but if you’re going to portray this frustrating historical fact, it never hurts to have Kevin Costner be your voice of reason. From Jim Garrison to Eliott Ness, I’ve always like the cut of his guy-in-charge jib. He plays authority well, and when he makes the choice to bend, it’s effective. Jim Parsons plays against type as an untrustworthy prick who won’t stand for Katherine’s rising among the ranks. It’s also great to see Glen Powell here as John Glenn. He has so much can’t-be-shaken charisma, he reminded me of a young Tom Cruise. If you haven’t seen him in Everybody Wants Some!!, CHANGE THAT.
But the women are the show here. I’ve liked Henson since her Oscar-overlooked performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but can’t bring myself to watch the melodrama that is Empire. Here, she’s dynamite, holding it together and adjusting her glasses while she computes the social norms she faces as if they’re a complex mathematical equation. She in turn loses it like the best of them, overwhelmed by joy or exasperation. Octavia Spencer has some of the best lines of the three and by now has established herself as a solid vessel for a one-upping line of dialogue. And I couldn’t hum you a tune of Janelle Monae’s, but between her performances in this and Moonlight, I’m glad she’s acting, mixing well attitude and smarts.
It’s pretty amazing to know these three women managed to achieve great things individually, but were all great friends. What are the odds that all these groundbreakers would know each other? Clearly, the support they gave one another in the male-dominated (and so white it’s practically clear) workplace helped propel them to success.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, the whole deal. Director Melfi was behind 2014’s equally likeable St. Vincent, although this script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder has more fat cut out. It’s a pretty streamlined account of these ladies. It clips along and deserves the crowds it’s drawing.
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Release Date: January 6, 2017
Run Time: 127 Minutes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox