Minutes before the Oscars begin – Milo Garner reviews Theodore Melfi’s film; nominated for 3 awards including Best Picture. (Be sure to check out our official predictions & reviews for the other nominees here)
Hidden Figures is a film not so much about space as blank spaces. The eponymous “hidden” figures are three NASA scientists. Though they were integral in getting John Glenn into orbit, theirs aren’t names you’d recognise. This is because they were black women working in 1962, at which time segregation was still in full swing and the right to vote was still a few years off. Even in the present, they have not received the recognition they deserve, and that is a disservice this film seeks to correct.
Despite the revelatory nature of the narrative – showcasing a part of the space race not well known to the mainstream – the film is a fairly by-the-numbers biopic of sorts. But by-the-numbers can still be pretty good. The three leads at its centre, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, all perform excellently, and Henson especially manages to present a well-rounded character. Her role, Katherine, is the film’s main drive, with its opening scenes being a rather unexpected flashback to the 1920s, with Katherine as a child evidencing her mathematical ability at school. This is to assert that she really is the kind of indispensable prodigy that NASA needs, rather than just another mathematical genius on the NASA team – she is critical. But, despite her talent, she finds herself limited by more arbitrary aspects of her person: that she is a woman, and – more gravely – that she is black. Due to this she finds herself, with her friends of similar intelligence, being used as a mere ‘computer’ (before electronic computers existed people had to do the sums) in a cooped-up room far from the high-level work and unable to climb the ladder. But, thanks to her sheer ability, she is eventually moved to the Space Task Group, led by Al Harrison – this is where the big science is going down.
Al Harrison, played sternly by Kevin Costner, is an interesting character in that he didn’t exist – he represents a simplification of the management of NASA so as to avoid confusion. In this simplification the formula of the film is laid somewhat bare. Opposite to Harrison’s firm-but-fair colourblindness is Paul Stafford (played by a Jim Parsons cast a little against type); Stafford is another composite character, representing the sneering racists in NASA’s space programme, and with these two characters a general formula can be established. First, Katherine will attempt to do something, probably quite reasonable, and Stafford will tell her it isn’t permitted. The audience will collectively feel a slight pang of injustice, while Katherine, assertive as she is, will then take up the issue with Harrison, and lo, Kevin Costner can be seen personally ending racism one step at a time. Though there is a little facetiousness in that sentence, seeing Costner smash the sign of the ‘Colored Ladies Room’ with a sledgehammer (something that didn’t actually happen) does invite such comments. This is a general blueprint to the main thread of Hidden Figures and, despite its predictability, it works. Even if exact lines of dialogue can be predicted a few sentences before they appear, a good-if-obvious, beat is still a good beat. Admittedly it feels a little excessive that Spencer’s character, Dorothy, also has a ‘racist people at NASA’ composite (Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian), but she functions just as well in the narrative as Stafford.
On that note comes the subplots of the film in general – while Katherine is working quite directly on getting Glenn into space, Dorothy and Monáe’s Mary have their own arcs to fulfil. Dorothy has two issues at play – first to be promoted to supervisor (a role she unofficially performs anyway) and to secure her ‘computers’ a job for when the electronic computers come to replace them. Though her story doesn’t get started until toward the end of the film, it flows smoothly and builds to a satisfying close, if lacking anything exceptional bar one particular scene with Vivian which contains some particularly good dialogue. Mary’s arc concerns her ambition to become an engineer, and the obstacle that she cannot study at the university necessary to become qualified, as it is restricted to whites only. Though probably the slimmest in content of the three, she gets a fairly good courtroom scene and her story functions well enough. A third subplot is also present, in the form of a romantic side story concerning Katherine and military officer Jim (Mahershala Ali). This threatens to distract from the story a little at first, but is ultimately well-managed as a character-building aside that doesn’t compromise the pace of the film in general – even if it is by no means essential.
On the note of essentiality, the film’s apparent climax should be addressed. Though a fair few of its characters are invented composites, Hidden Figures is, ultimately, a true story, and so is almost trapped by the better-known drama capping its story. As is common knowledge, John Glenn’s first trip to space did not go off without a hitch, and he was forced to return to earth earlier than scheduled. It was a very tense moment for NASA, and indeed America at large, facing the possibility that Glenn might not make it back, and naturally it would be difficult to ignore this part of the tale. But, as might be clear, this has nothing to do with the hidden figures this film is about. This means that, after the arcs for all three have completed, we must watch them look stressful as a mostly unrelated drama takes place out of atmosphere. This is quite a literal description – the film cycles between its main characters: Katherine at mission control, Dorothy listening to her radio, and Mary watching TV through the window of a storefront. This seems like a difficult issue to avoid, and though there were some attempts to introduce Glenn in the film earlier, it still feels a little like the climax from a different film. One like The Right Stuff, which manages the same scene but better, though it’s doubtful Hidden Figures was trying to compete with that.
Formally Hidden Figures is passable if not notable. Its most interesting feature is a soundtrack by Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer, which puts a 60s twist on Pharrell’s contemporary style. Interestingly for anachronistic music, this neither creates any great emphasis nor feels out of place; it simply blends into the background. This isn’t itself bad, but seems like a missed opportunity – if a director decides to mismatch a film’s period to the music used, it’s usually best justified by its strong effect, à la Tarantino. The camerawork is similarly standard, though perhaps a little obvious at times it lingers on classic images of 60s racism, such as a ‘colored water fountain’. Showing that the racism seen in NASA is systematic to society is fair thematically, but it perhaps could have been portrayed a little more naturally. But despite this issue and a few others, it’s hard to criticize Hidden Figures too harshly. Overall, it is an engaging and enjoyable – if unexceptional – film about a part of history that deserves to be told. Hopefully future generations who see this will wonder how the film ever got its name in the first place, and if so it will have achieved its goal.
Hidden Figures is out now in UK cinemas. See the international trailer below: