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Film review: HIDDEN FIGURES, from ‘Built For Speed’

Intertwining a civil rights story with the early 1960’s space race, Hidden Figures might at first glance seem like a hybrid of The Help and Apollo 13 and while it’s at times formulaic and set within a sunny 1960s milieu worthy of Ron Howard, it contains an important and uplifting story.

Based on actual events, Hidden Figures traces the careers of three African American women who worked at NASA ‘s Langley Virginia headquarters in the 1960s. Beginning as number crunchers or as they were called ‘computers’ , they make the difficult, threatening but inspired leap into much bigger roles in the space program.  Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) who is arguably the film’s central character, is a maths genius who moves from the dingy, cramped and isolated ‘computers’ building to the Strangelovian command centre where America’s biggest maths brains are wrestling with the mindboggling calculations needed to plan the Mercury Rocket’s trajectory around the earth. Her friend Mary (Janelle Monae) aspires to become an aeronautical engineer on the Mercury project while the trio’s ostensible leader Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) presciently decides to embrace the new mainframe computer technology being installed at NASA.

The film mainly concerns the way in which each woman collides with a glass ceiling of gender and race. Katherine is ostracised by the all-white male colleagues including supervisor Paul Stafford (Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons) and has to endure the indignity of a 40 minute trek to and from the so-called coloured toilets on the other side of the compound. Mary is faced with the Catch 22 craziness of only being eligible for the engineering program if she completes a course at a local school which happens to be for whites only. Dorothy is constantly overlooked for a supervisor role by boss (Kirsten Dunst) even though she performs at that level already.

Their fight to overcome these obstacles is moving and inspiring if at times predictable and a little cheesy. The women are almost portrayed as super human, particularly Katherine who constantly saves the day and seems to be the only person in NASA who understands advanced maths.

Despite occasionally stretching credulity and lapsing into cliché, the film makes excellent use of those twin triumphs of the 1960’s the space program and civil rights movement. The space race has long been anointed by Hollywood as the ultimate expression of what is good about America: scientific and technological ingenuity mixed with an adventurous pioneer spirit in which the US ultimately beat the Russians. The film doesn’t pretend, though, that NASA was a paragon of virtue. It’s seen as a microcosm of 1960’s America: racist, sexist, oppressively bureaucratic but also rapidly progressing. The film’s not so subtle message is that NASA was pushing the frontiers of science and exploration the way people like Dr Martin Luther King and the three women were pushing the boundaries of acceptance and human rights.  This is above all else a feel-good film, however and it only hints at the uglier more violent side of racism and opposition to the civil rights movement.

The terrific performances from the three main characters are the key to this film’s success. Octavia Spencer makes Dorothy a wonderfully thoughtful, compassionate and forward thinking woman, Janelle Monae gives aspirant engineer Mary an inspiring forthrightness and Taraji P. Henson convincingly depicts Katherine’s transition from nervous maths nerd to an increasingly assured person.   When Katherine suddenly vents her anguish and disgust at her treatment from her all-white male co-workers it’s as powerful and moving a moment as we’ve in cinema in many years.

The film also features a fine supporting cast. Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the head of Katherine’s department, gives the sort of performance normally reserved for Tom Hanks, the gruff leader with a soft heart who champions the underdog.   It’s very familiar but Costner is terrific making Harrison an obsessively driven yet complex figure who is just starting to emerge blinking from the confusing haze of an outdated prejudiced world. Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst impress as characters unaware of or at least unconcerned by their casual racism but in Dunst’s case someone tacitly aware that she too is constrained by a sexist system.

Like any film set in the 60’s there is of course a killer soundtrack and here we’re treated to wonderful soul tunes that add a sultry vibe to proceedings.

Hidden Figures occasionally reverts to formula but its invigorating story and excellent performances, particularly from the three women at its centre, make it a superior crowd pleaser.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Historical drama, biopic.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Theodore Melfi.

Release date: 16th Feb 2017.

Running time: 127 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show

 

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