Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Review: "Hidden Figures" Turns NASA History Into a Feel Good Movie

Scene from Hidden Figures
Despite taking place 65 years ago, director Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures is a film that feels prescient to 2016. It comes through in every line of dialogue that states its themes a little too obviously. This isn't specifically a story of how women and blacks were seen as second-class citizens in America at the time, but more of a symbolic gesture of why society shouldn't underestimate the potential that each member brings to the table. The story of NASA is one that's very clear - with this particular story even being told better in The Right Stuff - but the goal of Hidden Figures is to show a side that hasn't been explored before. The ending may be the familiar triumphant period piece fluff, but what Melfi has created is an endearing portrait of teamwork and how every voice counts, no matter what they look like.

The story centers around three women; played by Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, and Taraji P. Henson. To varying degrees, all three work for NASA on the first ever mission to launch a man into space. While the story sets them up as friends, each one spends their time on their own separate missions. The central story is that of Henson, whose math skills land her a job calculating the launch and landings of the mission. She is undermined, even mistaken for a custodian at first. Yet when she begins using her smarts, she becomes a useful tool - albeit with some backlash from her boss (Kevin Costner) and coworker (Jim Parsons). Still, she never gives up. Her diligent work turns the familiar third act into a riveting and empowering story that manages to become about more than Henson's gender or race. It's about America working together to overcome larger than life obstacles.

It is true that the film largely ignores difficult themes related to race relations; only hinting at them occasionally. However, what ends up happening is a feel good story of history that brings to life lives that aren't often explored. This isn't just a martyr story of black women struggling at work. It focuses on their personal lives as well, including Henson's relationship with Mahershala Ali. While a simple concept, it feels refreshing in the sense that complex female black characters in mainstream cinema is relatively new and in general has only risen above depressing martyr narratives in the past few years. These are women who love their lives and are passionate about work. It's their personalities that define them, and it's refreshing to see their struggles resolved with witty banter infused with empowering statements. It may be at times cornball, but it captures the familiar tone of a film about working together.

It also comes through in the soundtrack, featuring new music by Pharrell Williams. While the concept of writing multiple songs for a new film that isn't a musical is itself refreshing, it is impressive how well it works. In simple scenes such as Henson running a few miles just to use a bathroom, the upbeat 60's riffs of "Runnin'" helps to paint the picture of inequality and the desire to strive for something greater. It fits with the style of the film, creating something that pops off the screen. Other artists include Mary J. Blige, Kim Burrell, and star Jannelle Monae adding soul to the soundtrack. It may make the experience more confectionary, but it fits with the film's simple desires to entertain and give hope to those wanting to believe in the best of America; maybe not just to work in NASA, but to work together on more menial tasks.

Among the cast, the best is Henson. This could largely be because she is given the most fodder to work with. She brings a confidence to her role that makes her occasional snarky remark sound empowering with moments clearly written for audience appraisal. She is also given the most back story, which helps her to stand out. Spencer is equally endearing, but is in some ways more comic and less fulfilling as a character. Her struggle to escape a mediocre job as an adviser to the black female staff is empathetic, but only gets going late in the game when her co-stars have more than earned the audience's trust. Monae has plenty of great moments but mostly shines on movie star charisma. Even then, it's when the cast is working together that the movie really gets to shine, and this is most true in the final stretch when potential tragedy asks NASA to put aside differences and work together. 

Hidden Figures may not be a complex movie, but it will satisfy anyone looking for a feel good movie, let alone one with a story that feels prescient to the moment in time. Maybe it lacks certain depths of historical accuracy, but it does help to create narratives that are more than deserving of being told. With a catchy soundtrack, plenty of great quips and performances, this is a film meant to bring audiences together in celebration. It isn't the best film ever concocted, but it's probably one of the few right now that are so overwhelmingly optimistic and encouraging that the small flaws don't matter. It's a showcase for its stars to have fun and tell a good story. That sounds like a pretty good deal.

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