Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spence, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst,
Jim Parsons, Jim Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Kimberly Quinn, Glen Powell, Olek Krupa
Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Reviewed by Paul & Patrick Gibbs
Out of Four
When a film is labeled as "important", to a fair portion of the viewing audience that translates into "boring". And when a film can be described as a "feel-good movie", another section of the audience dismisses it as formulaic and maipulative. In either case, jumping to these kind of conclusions with Hidden Figures is a mistake: director Theodore Melfi and his cast have created a smart, engaging film that entertains at the same time that it illuminates a chapter of American history known to far too few of us, the story of black women who worked at NASA during the days of Project Mercury.
Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine Johnson, a math prodigy who works as a "computer" for NASA, calculating numbers. Katherine is bumped up to work with director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and his team as they prepare for the launch of the Mercury mission, in particular John Glenn's historic orbital flight. Despite her intelligence, Katherine is treated condescendingly by many of her co-workers, and is subject to various indignities such as being forced to walk two building over just to find a bathroom which is open to black women.
Subplots involve Katherine's friends Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Dorothy stuggles with a condescending white boss (Kirsten Dunst) who won't support her for the supervisor job she clearly deserves. And Mary makes the bold step of pursuing an engineering degree at a time when black, female engineers were unheard of. The three story threads are juggled expertly, never getting in the way of each other or feeling forced.
While Hidden Figured takes some liberties with facts (for example, Costner's character is a composite), it's no more than we've come to expect from a film "based on a true story", and the film is engaging and engrossing, and the experiences of the principle characters are alternately infuriating and inspiring. The performances are excellent all across the board: Henson, Spencer and Monae pull us into their characters and the struggles they face by giving well rounded and fully developed performances, and Costner is outstanding, giving one of his best performances in years. Jim Parsons, star of the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory is a little distracting through no fault of his own. It's just that it's impossible to watch him play an uptight scientist without expecting him to invoke the roommate agreement and solve disputes with a game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock".
Melfi's direction is straightforward but assured, keeping things moving while still giving us the necessary time to know the characters he's developed so well in his screenplay. The result is a smart and sophisticated "feel-good movie" that avoids feeling phony or oversimplified and earns its emotional responses. The heroines of Hidden Figures are important and deserve to be better known by the public, and that makes this film a noble effort. Happily, it's intentions are accompanied by strong execution, and the result is a movie that's as timely and important as it is engrossing and entertaining movie. Its message of equality inspires us even as we remember that we haven't come as far forward as we like to think.
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