Hidden Figures is the rare true story-based historical drama that succeeds at being as inspirational and feel-good as it aspires to be.
It’s the early 1960s and the United States is in the heat of a race with the Soviet Union to be the first to break new ground in the final frontier: space. Mathematicians Katherine Coleman (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are all black women working in the segregated West Area Computers division at the NASA Research Center in Langley when one day, Katherine is unexpectedly recruited to serve as a (human) computer for the Space Task Group that is concentrating on getting a man into orbit around the Earth – with gruff, but focused and goal-oriented, director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) leading the charge.
Katherine, who has proven to be a mathematical prodigy since she was a child, struggles to keep up with the intense demands place upon her, largely because of the racist treatment that she must deal with – something that also holds true for both Dorothy and Mary, in their own efforts to work their way up the ladder at NASA. However, as it becomes clearer and clearer that the Soviets are pulling ahead in the space race, Harrison and the other bosses at NASA are faced with the reality: either they will all get there together, as equals, or not at all.
Based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly and adapted for the screen by co-writers Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (with the latter also directing), Hidden Figures explores a largely unknown aspect of NASA history that – in an example of art imitating life – has taken longer than it should have to get its fair due, following the release of several movies and TV series about the 1960s Space Race. Nevertheless, that story certainly benefits from being told by strong talent on both sides of the camera, with Melfi applying the same warm and humane touch here that he brought to his breakout comedy/drama effort, St. Vincent. As such, Hidden Figures is the rare true story-based historical drama that succeeds at being as inspirational and feel-good as it aspires to be.
Hidden Figures‘ three leads – Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, Oscar-nominee Taraji P. Henson and award-winning musician/actor Janelle Monáe – further elevate the film with their respective performances as a trio of equally smart, but very different women making their way in a time and place that is openly segregated in more ways than one. All three of Hidden Figure‘s stars deliver naturalistic and relatable performances too, making their characters’ arcs and how they respond to the challenges that they are presented with, all the more satisfying for it. The script by Schroeder and Melfi is also thoughtful in how its frames its protagonists’ experiences by juxtaposing them with major events of its historical setting in the background, creating an effective thematic throughline about how systematic prejudice only impedes the world’s progress on multiple fronts, social and scientific alike.
The historical setting of Hidden Figures itself is brought to life through handsome visuals captured by Melfi and his cinematographer Mandy Walker (Australia, Jane Got a Gun), that are by and large seamlessly blended with archival footage from the decade, in combination with some of the best ’60s costume designs – from the dress shirts worn by the men of NASA to the eye-catching dresses worn by the women – by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus this side of Mad Men. Further helping to establish a strong sense of time and place in Hidden Figures is the film’s use of music, ranging from classic pop tunes to original music (including the catchy song “Runnin'” by Pharrell Williams) that matches the popular styles and trends of the time period. This more general aesthetic of historical accuracy with a touch of modernism, is reflective of how Hidden Figures as a whole paints life in the 1960s and quietly leaves it to moviegoers to draw parallels to present-day events (or not) as they will.
Similarly, Hidden Figures portrays its white supporting characters not as two-dimensional antagonists that are easy to disassociate with (for those watching the film), but as fully-developed individuals who have little reason to question or acknowledge their segregated way of life, unless they are confronted about it. Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst in turn deliver multifaceted performances here as the NASA Space Task Group’s head engineer Paul Stafford and Dorothy’s superior Vivian Mitchell, respectively; both of them characters in positions of authority who quietly undergo personal journeys of their own, over the course of the film. Meanwhile, Kevin Costner once again proves to be a strong fit for an objective-driven, no-nonsense, leader type in the 1960s (after his work in JFK and Thirteen Days) with his turn as the NASA Space Task Group’s director, Al Harrison.
The supporting cast for Hidden Figures also includes a handful of recognizable character actors in less essential, but nonetheless relevant and enjoyable performances. While such actors as Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!) and Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) are noteworthy for their appearances as the iconic (and charismatic) astronaut John Glenn and Mary Jackson’s husband, Levi, the standout in Hidden Figures‘ larger ensemble is easily Mahershala Ali as military man Jim Johnson. The romantic subplot involving Jim and Katherine is somewhat under-developed in the greater scheme of the movie, but thanks to Ali’s charming performance and his easy-going screen chemistry with Henson, the relationship that forms between the two is convincing nonetheless.
Hidden Figures doesn’t stray far from the tried-and-true Hollywood formula for how to transform a true story into an uplifting filmgoing experience – but thanks to its strong execution (acting and direction alike), it succeeds at turning its real-world subject matter into an equally captivating and entertaining story to watch unfold on the big screen. As such, Hidden Figures provides a welcome alternative to some of the more emotionally and thematically dark drama offerings of the ongoing movie awards season, as well as a nice and timely reminder for everyone: we’re all in this (space) race together.
Hidden Figures is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 127 minutes long and is Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.
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