Saturday, May 20, 2017

Sisters are Doing It for Themselves

Films: Hidden Figures
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I first heard about Hidden Figures, I knew it was going to be a movie that I really wanted to see. As I’ve said multiple times on this blog, I’m a sucker for anything involving space and NASA, and space race stuff is what gets me the most excited. A story I knew nothing about? Involving the early days of NASA? I’m all in. That it also happens to be a civil rights story and feature the work of American treasure Octavia Spencer is just added bonus. Seriously, it had me at “space race.”

Hidden Figures follows the stories of three African-American women working for NASA as “computers,” which really was the term before people actually had computers. Their jobs were to more or less work on doing calculations for various aspects of the space program. Without trying to be too maudlin or sappy, the story depicts the struggles that these women face in accomplishing their jobs in a world where segregation was still in force and where a lot of people thought that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. That’s a lot to unpack, and there really are three different, fully-realized stories here.

The first concerns Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who is in many ways the most outspoken of the trio. At the very least, she is the one least concerned about ruffling racial feathers. As NASA ramps up to put a man into orbit, desperately chasing the Russian space team, Mary is requested from the temporary computer pool by Karl Zielinski (Oleg Krupa) for permanent assignment. Karl pushes her to consider a degree in engineering despite her gender and race. Since she has less of a problem creating waves, she goes for it, requiring a court order to allow her to take night classes in an all-white high school.

Second is the story of Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Dorothy is the de facto head of her department, performing all of the duties of a supervisor without the title and (importantly) without the pay. Standing in her way seems to be Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who is never unprofessional but also never very helpful in anything Dorothy wants to do. With NASA getting a new, gigantic IBM capable of doing all the work of her temp computer pool and more, Dorothy takes it on herself to learn FORTRAN so that she won’t be phased out of a job after the current launches.

The third story is really the central one, which is why I have saved it for last. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is one of those super-genius, intuitive number crunchers who, had she been born male and white, would be heading a department at NASA. She, thanks to an expertise in analytical geometry, is transferred to the Space Task Group, working under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who is notoriously difficult to please. What stands in her way is a number of things. Since segregation is still in full effect, each time she needs to use a bathroom, she needs to take a half-mile hike across the NASA campus to find an appropriate bathroom. Her gender and color make her an outcast in her section to everyone but Harrison (who merely wants results), especially to Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who seems to be threatened by her. She also has the only romantic subplot of the film. As a widow with three children, she attracts the attention of National Guard officer Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), who is recently stationed in the area.

Hidden Figures works for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons it works is that the story itself is interesting. I find the space race interesting because of what it truly entailed. This was an entirely new thing for everyone involved, and the dangers that were faced were not known. So much could (and did) go wrong at just about every stage, and eventually, it put people’s lives on the line. We were strapping men to the fronts of missiles and shooting them off the planet. The guts that took, the genius, the work…it’s astonishing, especially when you consider that the computers involved in the first moon landing had less processing power than even a low-end smartphone.

But the real win here is in how Hidden Figures handles the civil rights-type struggles of the three women. In many films that deal with this era, what we often get are the stories that are white-centric. It’s the main problem I had with The Help. That’s a civil rights story to be sure, but it’s the white person who comes in and helps those “po’ folk” who can’t help themselves. That’s not the case here. In all three of the stories, there are certainly a few white people who open some doors or who merely act as human beings. When Al Harrison finds out about Katherine’s daily treks to find a bathroom, he takes a crowbar to a bathroom sign, allowing her to use one much closer to her desk. Mary makes an impassioned case to a judge, who allows her to cross racial lines at the high school. But, and this is important, this is a fight that these women take on themselves, eyes open. Sure, they get help, but they are very much in charge of their own destinies and they very much take action to change the status quo.

I don’t want to sound like a simp, but Hidden Figures is an inspiring story, and it manages to do this without being corny or forced. It feels like a real thing. I mean, I know it was based on real history, but it doesn’t come across for the most part as being “Hollywoodized.” It plays things straight, because the real story is good enough.

2016 is turning out to have been a very good year, and I am very pleased that I wasn’t disappointed with a film I was this excited to see.

EDIT: In my rush to get this review up on Sunday, I realize that I forgot something I did want to mention. Another place where Hidden Figures excels is in its soundtrack, much of which was done by Pharrell Williams. Williams's score manages to evoke the past and still stay modern. It's a nearly-perfect accompaniment to the film, and I don't know that a lot of people have talked about just how good the score is. Were I someone who cared a great deal about music and who listened to a lot of music, it's a soundtrack I'd consider buying, and that's not something I say that often.

Why to watch Hidden Figures: It’s about NASA.
Why not to watch: I’ve honestly got nothing here.


  1. I loved this too, and was glad I went to the cinema to see it. I like the balance it managed between the science of the space race, and the personal lives of the characters, something it has in common with The Right Stuff and Apollo 13.

    My only bugbear was finding out afterwards that it twisted the real history of segregation at NASA to suit the story. But as a film it is so well made in all aspects, that I decided it didn't matter that much.

    1. Well, if the story is going to go for additional drama, it will be in the civil rights stories, most likely. It wouldn't shock me if timelines needed to be adapted and characters combined to make sense in a two-hour drama. Certain things need simplification just for the sake of the medium.

      People who lived the story liked it, though, and that works for me.

  2. Loved, loved, loved this movie! All three main characters were not only well played but were interesting people in challenging situations.

    As much as I love Octavia Spencer and thought she was deserving I was sorry to see the other two actresses shortchanged acknowledgement wise since they were equally strong. The only part I could have done without was the story of Katherine's romance and eventual marriage. I know it was done to make her more rounded and was part of her actual life story, nor did I really mind it since it was as well played as the rest, but it took time away from the main NASA story and that was what held my interest the most.

    In a certain way this reminded me of Apollo 13 especially when John Glenn took that initial flight. The result was known as it was in Apollo 13 but thanks to the skill with which it was presented it was an incredibly tense experience that pulled you in. Having seen it in the theatre I could tell I wasn't alone in that, you could feel a palpable tension throughout the audience.

    1. The natural comparisons here are with The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. In all three cases, I knew the history going in, and in all three films, there is still tension in how things will turn out. This is good filmmaking. When you know the history and still don't know how things are going to turn out, the story has done something really wonderful.

      I agree with you on the three actresses. My first thought when the credits rolled was that at the very least Taraji P. Henson deserved a nomination somewhere. She's the heart of the movie.

      I'm of two minds on Katherine's romance. The film doesn't spend too much time on it--we don't even really see the wedding. I think it gives it just enough time without letting it detract from the rest of the story.

  3. I took my daughter to see Hidden Figures (she was just shy of 8) back in January, and we both really liked it. I wasn't sure what she would think, but she was into the story the whole time. I'm a space fan, especially with the early days, and that made this story even more interesting. However, it also just worked as just a great crowd pleaser. I totally agree that it handled the civil rights part of it well. Even Costner's character is a little more nuanced than I expected. I can't wait to see it again; waiting on my hold from the library!

    1. It's a really easy film to like. My wife was sitting on the couch when I put it in the spinner and she said she had no interest in watching it. Ten minutes later, she looked at me and said, "Well, I guess I'm watching this now."

      I think this is one of those rare films that has something to interest a lot of different people. It really does work on just about every level.

  4. I have mixed feelings about this one. An undoubtedly well-made and well-acted film but blatantly manipulative.

    Katherine's daily treks across the NASA campus to the bathroom, so over-played in the film, never happened, and so neither did the crowbar-to-the-sign climax.

    Mary's impassioned plea to a judge never happened, either.

    Hidden Figures manufactured conflicts and drama, and cheapened what should have been a story of women's achievement into a rather trite "break-down the racial barriers!" narrative.

    Quote from Katharine Johnson: "I didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job...and play bridge at lunch. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it."

    Is the real story here, trampled in the name of fake dramatics, how relatively progressive the NASA workplace was?

    1. It's a fair question. Those moments work for the narrative the film wants to tell. Sadly, I think this is a case of needing the drama to sell the science.

      Sadly, we live in a world where the scientific achievements simply won't get people to come to to theater. The drama of wanting to beat the Russians would have been enough for me--I know the history, and I love the early days of NASA. I'm a space nerd, though, and I don't think I'm the norm.

      So, in that sense, I think there needed to be some additional, manufactured drama added here to get people to appreciate the real achievement of what was done at NASA. You can't sell people on the science if you can't get them to watch the movie, and I don't know how many people would want to watch a movie where their initial impression is going to be people doing math really hard for a couple of hours.

    2. I fully agree about science not selling. It was sadly noticeable in recent films like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game how terrific scientific achievements were glossed over and sidelined to sell the movie. I think I've mentioned before how noticeably more science-oriented I found 1943's Madame Curie. Audiences must have been given more credit back then!

      I felt Hidden Figures could have had a strong human story about women's achievements in a male-dominated world. It unfortunately chose to go elsewhere. I fully respect the filmmakers' rights to make these artistic and commercial choices; the contrived racial tensions rubbed me the wrong way and took away from my enjoyment.

    3. Yeah, I think that's a completely valid position. It didn't bother me as much, but I don't think that response to the film is somehow uncalled for or inappropriate.

      The glossing over of the science, incidentally, was absolutely my biggest beef with The Theory of Everything, and I called out Madame Curie as being a film I liked specifically because it did stress the science. With The Theory of Everything, the lack of actual science can possibly be put down to the fact that the film was based on his wife's book. Still, to my mind, that's the real story.