Release: Friday, January 6, 2017
Written by: Theodore Melfi; Allison Shroeder
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
‘We go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’
Former President John F. Kennedy’s speech became a staple of American history the moment those words were uttered. The pep talk was designed to reshape public perception of where the country was headed in terms of its relationship with the Soviets, who in October of 1957 became the first to successfully launch an un-manned satellite into orbit. The above excerpt, taken by itself, has accumulated such weight over the years we recall the event more for the ethos and sense of national pride his words evoked rather than the place in which they were uttered (Rice University football stadium in Houston, Texas, incidentally).
Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures is nothing if not a potent reminder of the kinds of details that have been buried in the avalanche of time, how our understanding of history is often informed by supposition and omission, not necessarily what actually happened. Melfi’s historical drama tells of the accomplishments of three extraordinary African-American women who worked at Langley Research Center, a Virginia-based division of NASA, and how their gifted intellects and willingness to persevere helped galvanize a nation amidst the chaos of the Space Race.
Amazingly, their stories have never been shared — until now (okay, excluding the non-fiction book upon which this is based). Hidden Figures is set in 1961 and traces the trajectories of mathematicians Katherine Johnson (née Goble), played by Taraji P. Henson and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer), as well as aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Each journey is an inspiration, whether it’s Johnson becoming the first African-American to work in the elite Space Task Group, Vaughan’s promotion to supervisor after taking significant strides in adapting to a rapidly changing technological environment, or Jackson’s acceptance into a traditionally all-white school to obtain her engineering degree.
What develops is a crowd-pleasing dramatization whose hagiographic tendencies are frequently pardoned because the whole thing is just so darn watchable, even when it’s hard to watch. The trio of actresses could not be more winning in their performances and hey, even that guy from The Big Bang Theory is pretty good as the archetypal petulant-child-as-immediate-superior. Kevin Costner tags along as Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group whose neck the American government is breathing down as they work to stay competitive with the Russians.
Melfi and Allison Schroeder’s writing paces the events so that the story steadily absorbs and the environments feel real and lived-in. Hidden Figures is brought to life through an exquisite combination of costuming and production design. The actors look the part even though accents aren’t very smooth and the dialogue tends to be clunky. Even still, when the film begins we find ourselves immediately transported. We are in the ’60s, marching along with these pioneers ever closer to that famed Kennedy speech, a speech that takes on new significance as the movie concludes.
Hidden Figures never amounts to the kind of confronting hyper-realism recent years have almost conditioned us to expect out of race-related historical dramas. The film’s complaisant tone doesn’t necessarily help to distinguish the product, yet Melfi’s treatment is an appropriately dignified and emotional account of three pivotal figures in the history of the space program. While a few details are left to be nitpicked, the film’s convictions shall go uncontested.
Recommendation: Tonally familiar but not offensively so. Loaded with charismatic and touching performances and bolstered by a fascinating and incredible true story, the emotional engine driving Hidden Figures to its expected conclusion ultimately makes this an easy (and strong) recommendation.
Running Time: 127 mins.
Quoted: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”
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