Film Review – Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures tells the true story of three black women in the early days of NASA who rose through the glass ceiling of race and gender to become important people in the U.S. space race. In the politics of 2016, reminders of what it used to be like for women of color, or just color, in the early 1960s are a wakeup call to those who were not around in this era of inequality.
Katherine (Goble) Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) all work at NASA in Langley, Virginia. They all started out as computers (as in running numbers, not the modern definition), but one by one, each found their strength and became important members of a NASA team. The film mostly focuses on Katherine Goble with her adjusting to being the only female and person of color working directly with the team putting a man in space. Katherine comes up against co-workers who do not want her around like Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), but the top boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) realizes her potential. Mary Jackson works on the engineering side of the space missions alongside Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa). Dorothy Vaughn has a harder time in finding her place, fighting for a supervisor position with a woman, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who will not give it to her. In the end, Dorothy takes matters and education into her own hands.
The central focus, other than the women, is the space race with Russia. The U.S. desperately wants a man in space before Russia. We all know what happens, but it is that push that creates the environment and stress at NASA in this film. It is with some sadness that people will see astronaut John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) featured prominently as he has just recently passed away. He is the top guy, the celebrity, and his portrayal in the film is quite sweet. Al Harrison is running the (space) ship, and Kevin Costner comes out of a recent acting slump to portray this tough guy with an enormous amount of pressure put on him. He has a caring side, and when it finally shows, it is Costner who brings Harrison’s portrayal to another level, and his scenes with Henson are the best of the film.
This is no doubt an important film and each of the three actresses took their role performance seriously and it showed on screen. While there may be talk of nominations for these actresses, chiefly Taraji P. Henson, it is the direction and tone of the film that may end up costing them nominations. The film is too general and does not want to push any boundaries or take any risks. It is a family-friendly film. While this will no doubt bring it to wider audiences and perhaps inspire children to be pursue a career in science and math, it does a bit of disservice to depicting how hard it was for these three women to earn the respect they deserved. There are dramatic scenes and the film does address the racial climate of 1961, but the film stops at the edge of a precipice, not wanting to go too far. Had the film been rated PG-13 instead of PG, perhaps I would have appreciated the film more.
I cannot review this film without bringing up the issue of camera focus. In at least one scene, Taraji P. Henson is out of focus when they are up close on her face. Her conversation with Mahershala Ali (playing her romantic interest Jim Johnson) has his face in perfect focus, but every cut to her face brings a glaring focus issue. With a bigger film like this, technical errors will bring the film down a notch for myself. Were pick-ups or reshoots not an option?
Not many of us are good with history. We may know the big events, but do we really know how far we have come and those who brought us to where we are today. In this case, I was shocked that I had never heard of these three important women. Hidden Figures does a great service to its audience by teaching us about history and milestones in the U.S. I only wish that the film had not tried to sugar coat the story so much and tried to lighten the tone.