‘Hidden Figures’ is a nice movie, a sweet movie, an inspiring movie, an Oscar movie. It’s destined to make people in mall movie theaters across the land smile. It will be shown in history classes on days when teachers are behind in lesson planning. It will get nominated for awards. It will be discussed fondly. It will also likely never be rewatched on purpose.
This is a big, pretty movie that manufactures all the fuzzy emotions that the filmmakers intended, but does so through such conventional means that it never cuts much deeper than the surface. It’s quite good, but desperately wants to be great and never hits that mark. There’s too much stuff happening and not enough being said. But at least it’s nice. Can’t fault it for that.
The film is about a secret slice of U.S. history that made baby steps of cultural progress. It’s set in those heady early days of NASA where theoretical science became real. While all the public faces of NASA were decidedly white, the organization secretly received crucial contributions from African American women at a time when they weren’t even allowed to use the public washrooms near their offices.
In particular, ‘Hidden Figures’ focuses on three women. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was an immensely talented math genius who became one of the key physicists plotting how the first men in space could land safely back on Earth. She also had two close friends of lesser yet valuable historical import. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) was another human calculator who managed to change state law so that she could take night classes and become an engineer. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) taught herself how to use NASA’s first supercomputer better than the eggheads who installed it. All were pioneers. All were human. This is their story. (Cue weepy music.)
This tale of triumph over institutionalized racism is right up to the minute in the type of progressive politics that Twitter has demanded Hollywood produce, while also coming in the period drama trappings that the studios love to flaunt during Oscar season. As you may have heard, the 1960s were a crazy time of social unrest and upheaval where great things happened that we can all look back on proudly. So that’s what the movie does. Good for it. The intentions are pure. Unfortunately, it wasn’t made by a filmmaker who was necessarily right for the job. The project is the brainchild of co-writer/director Theodore Melfi, whose only previous feature was the decidedly mediocre Bill Murray dramedy ‘St. Vincent’. Melfi knows how to make nice and pretty movies that offer comfy feels. That turns this story into inspirational melodrama with dustings of comedy.
Fair enough. That’ll please some crowds. It just doesn’t necessarily feel like the most nuanced or powerful approach possible for this material. The movie has little sense of danger or even real hatred, which is the battle these actual women faced. Instead, it’s all cozy with obvious sides of good and evil, racists who happily change, and good white people always there to lend a helping hand. (Really? This again? It better not have Kevin Costner as the progressive white guy hero. Never mind, it does…)
‘Hidden Figures’ deals with important and dark issues with a light touch and a space travel light show to force in spectacle. It gets laughs to endear characters while glossing over the pain that was their most difficult mountain to climb. That’s a shame.
The cast is great, which helps. The trio at the center are pretty fantastic. Taraji P. Henson is wonderful as the math genius who broke through, projecting strength and diligence in ways that are far harder to deliver than they seem. Octavia Spencer has the showoff supporting role (as is her way). She gets to sass and overcome and deliver the movie’s biggest laughs. She’s a damn delight (as always) and almost steals the show. Janelle Monáe is good, but her plot thread is the least interesting and seems to have been mostly left on the cutting room floor. Everyone else is cast to type, especially Kevin Costner as the noble leader who is still just a guy’s guy. Then there’s Kirsten Dunst in a small but pivotal role of the type that Laura Linney used to specialize. She does it well enough to suggest that she could step into all those roles that Hollywood used to need Linney for, and that’s A-OK.
So much like Melfi’s directorial debut, ‘Hidden Figures’ works just fine as easy mainstream dramedy. It’s not as daring as it could have been or as dull as it might have been. The movie shoots straight for the middle and nails those goals, for better or worse. If you want to know what boilerplate Oscar bait feels like, this is it, the Platonic ideal of well-meaning mediocrity with heart. Roll out the red carpet, this sucker will be getting nominated for statues. But then be sure to roll it back up, because it’ll be forgotten shortly thereafter.