Starring: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae
Director: Theodore Melfi
Running Time: 127 mins
Synopsis: Telling the untold true story of three coloured women working for NASA in the 60s, each of them responsible for helping to get a man into space, all whilst dealing with the oppressive sexism and racism of the time.
It is easy to forget in this cinematic world of Transformers 5 and Fast and Furious 8 that film is capable of giving a voice to parts of history that have been cruelly and unfairly forgotten. Hidden Figures is just one such tale. Unknown by the majority, and celebrated by merely a few, these women were a bigger part of the race to space than any of us ever really knew. Focusing on three key figures, we land in 1961 as Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monae) break down on the side of the road on their way to NASA. Coming upon them is a local sheriff who immediately denigrates their assertion that they are indeed members of the space exploration company. The film establishes the three women’s attitudes concisely and effectively.
Henson is the central one, quiet contemplative but immensely clever. Octavia Spencer is Octavia Spencer; formidable capable and showcasing a subtle vulnerability under it all. Janelle Monae is the spunky one, incredibly confident in herself, in her intelligence and in her place in this un-equal society. In a move that bemuses, director Melfi elects to keep the three of them apart for most of the film. Each are dealing with their own challenges to make their voice heard, but the one scene of them cooking and dancing together is more entertaining and insightful than a lot of their individual scenes.
Henson’s Katherine Johnson is most definitely the lead here, with the other two only dropping into the story at key moments. Luckily Henson is incredible here, she stays relatively quiet to start with but as her genius is noticed her empowerment grows, and it is sterling to watch. The anguish she suffers is also gracefully played. Most of these so called “issue” films can beat the drum of equality a little too loudly. Hidden Figures chooses the opposite route, its moments of racial bigotry are seen in little exchanges of dialogue or in the subtly shot seclusion of a bus ride to work. However you do sometimes yearn for a touch more fire in the belly. Save for one outburst ably and movingly played by Henson, the film plays it relatively safe similar to the Oscar-nominated The Help a few years back.
The cast around the titular women is strong. Kevin Costner plays his usual every-man stoic American in charge as the head of NASA, driven by a desire to best the Russians and seeing not colour in Johnson but an intelligence and a strength. His mid-film act of defiance against the segregated bathrooms could have played sentimentally coupled with a soapy piece of music but is instead played straight and to the point. This is not the time for outdated racist stubbornness but a time to work together to deliver something bigger than themselves. Kirsten Dunst is effectively bitchy, but delivers her inevitable tolerance with nuance and a touching chemistry with Spencer. Mahershala Ali is also a welcome if brief presence as Johnson’s new beau, a graceful rock at a time when she needs it most. It is only The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons who offers the one bum note. Less a fully fledged performance than a series of expressions and reaction shots. Although he probably isn’t helped from the thin writing that offers little insight into him as a person, other than the intellectual threat Johnson poses.
Theodore Melfi directs with simplicity. Other than some clever editing together of real footage of the rocket launches he shoots everything with a sunny glow and little in the way of personality. It is admirable to let this powerful story speak for itself, and he makes a smart choice in letting Pharrell add in some original catchy pieces alongside Hans Zimmer’s more traditional score, but it sometimes sacrifices proper meat on the bones for populist modesty. As the final euphoric moments arrive it is hard to not be uplifted by it all, but I found real emotion not in the films’s portrayal of these brave women but in the brief snippets of the real women themselves and how their lives played out, seen over the credits. You have to give thanks for this film bringing such notable women to attention, but I do wish the film was as courageous as these Hidden Figures!
Verdict: A timely crowd-pleaser, with three sterling performances at its core. However a lack of surprises and a notable absence of passion keep it from being truly memorable.