Directed by Theodore Melfi
Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Mone, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, and Glen Powell
Runtime: 125 minutes
There is a high difficulty factor when adapting a real-life story to the motion picture screen. On one hand, there is a duty to the people who lived it to tell the story as truthfully as possible. On the other hand, there is a duty to the movie-going public to make the picture entertaining. This is where real-life stories often fail. They tend to run the real events through a formula that hits the major points of the reality while conforming it to a more palatable and dramatic representation. Hidden Figures is no exception, it is often very formulaic, but the strength of the story and its performances help it surpass the blandness of the formula that it’s been squeezed into.
Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and her two friends Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Mone), all three of whom work for NASA in the early 60’s and are integral to the manned space flights. Katherine is assigned to the division that calculates the trajectory and orbital changes needed to get John Glenn (Glenn Powell) into space and then back again. She proves that she is better at the job than the men whose work she is there to check. Dorothy, faced with the dissolution of her department of computers (people who compute) due to the invention and installation of the IBM at NASA, takes it upon herself to learn coding and operates the machine better than the people from IBM. Mary is assigned to capsule design because she is talented in engineering, though because she is black and it’s the early ‘60s, she can’t go to engineering school.
The script, by director Theodore Melfi and Allison Shroeder is kind of basic. It tells the story in a fairly straightforward fashion with the usual formulaic emotional moments, normally isolated to the jaunts over to the women’s personal lives, though occasionally some are earned (as in Costner’s big moment when his character takes a crowbar to the sign for the ‘colored women’s room’ and declares that “Everyone at NASA pees the same color”). It’s troubling that a story this unknown and worthy of depiction on the big screen should be given such pedestrian treatment. No moments are unexpected, largely because they’re telegraphed long before they happen. There is also the obligatory inclusion of the women’s homelife and the romance between Katherine and Col. Jim Johnson. I’m up for any reason to get Mahershala Ali into a movie, but these parts spent away from NASA are not particularly compelling. Some are there to show that the early ‘60s were bad for black people (as every decade before and after have been) and to allude to, without doing much about, the simmering Civil Rights Movement that was about to come to a head. Everything in these sequences could have been explained in a sentence of dialogue between the women at work or to others there, with the exception of Mary taking on the state of Virginia to be given the right to take classes at an all-white school so she can get her Engineering degree. That stuff was necessary and compelling and could have served very well as the film’s acknowledgment that things were more than difficult for black women then, they were nearly impossible.
Melfi doesn’t do much better as director. Everything is conventional from framing to lighting. He just coasts along, reading out of a how-to book, barely making any kind of attempt to do anything that could distinguish his film from something we’ve seen 1,000 times before or from something on television. Combined with less-than-convincing visual effects for the rocket launches and capsule shots, and this film isn’t much to look at. Given that this is only Melfi’s second feature, after St. Vincent in 2014, he may just be taking his time in learning, though it’s more likely that he’s simply adopting a style that will get him work on studio pictures as a functional director that doesn’t try to be noticed, and after this film he likely won’t be.
By now, you’ve probably scrolled back up, seen the star rating and have begun to wonder if you’re reading some odd exercise in disassociation. Rest assured, that is not the case. While the screenplay structure and direction do Hidden Figures no favors, what elevates it from being mediocre is the story itself, transcending the pain-by-numbers screenplay and direction. The story is amazing and worthwhile and has so much power behind it, the treatment of it almost doesn’t matter.
The other saving grace of the film is the astounding performances. Henson is wonderful as Katherine, burying herself in the role and erasing images of Empire’s Cookie or Hustle & Flow’s Shug in favor of this bookish, soft-spoken genius. Her dedication to her work is coupled with her dedication to her family as a single mother of 3 girls (she is widowed). Her power is in her understanding of numbers and it is there she shows a room full of white men that they aren’t always the smartest people in the room. It’s a powerful performance that shows Katherine blossoming into a more assured person the longer she is there and showing up every white man in that office. Then there is the always amazing Octavia Spencer, who does her job dutifully though with some resentment as she is doing the work of a supervisor without the title or pay. She receives the assignments for her group and gives them out, but instead of resigning to the fact that her department will likely be phased out when the computer comes online, she takes it upon herself to learn the machine, train her team and become indispensable. Spencer comes at Dorothy with determination and a little exhaustion. She doesn’t let something she doesn’t know stop her from learning it and being better at it than anyone else. In the information blurbs after the main story wraps up, we learn that Dorothy Vaughn was considered one of the most brilliant minds at NASA and Spencer never shies away from exhibiting that brilliance in her character.
Janelle Mone, in only her second live-action film after the astonishing Moonlight earlier this year, is a revelation here as she was in Moonlight. She plays Mary Jackson as a firebrand determined not to let anything or anyone stand in her way. Her persistence in trying to break down age-old barriers is inspiring to anyone who sees it, and Mone delivers a nuanced performance that could have easily been stereotypical but isn’t at all. Costner is another stand-out, giving a performance that reminds us how good he really is (as we tend to forget with him). Playing Al Harrison, the boss of Katherine’s division, he doesn’t let race or gender get in the way of his understanding how brilliant Katherine is. He needs the numbers to work and sees that she is the only one who has been able to make that happen.
So, Hidden Figures isn’t a perfect movie and has a lot working against it, with a fairly standard script and lackluster directorial treatment, yet it shines brightly anyway thanks to exemplary performances and a story that just refuses to be buried in mediocre treatment. The fact that the film can stand up to, and overcome, the restrictions placed upon it by the white people who created it only intensifies the impact of the amazing women it is about.