The most satisfying movies based on true stories are the relatively obscure ones, not just because they shed light on unknown tales, but because they are more capable both of surprising audiences and historical inaccuracies are more easily glossed over for entertainment purposes. These factors work in Hidden Figures‘ favour, a movie that is important, well-performed, and entertaining. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, in other words.
In 1961, three African American women working at NASA seek to improve their standing at the association commensurate with their skills: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, TV’s Empire) is called up to the Space Task Group to assist in the calculations required to send John Glenn (Glen Powell, TV’s Scream Queens) into space; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, Bad Santa 2) takes it upon herself to learn the new IBM computing system to fight against her planned obsolescence; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, Moonlight) rallies to become an engineer.
Hidden Figures is concatenated for dramatic effect and expedience: these three women’s stories didn’t happen simultaneously, and they all occurred significantly earlier in time than the convenient Glenn scenario used to illustrate it here. Getting the flavour of the story is more important in cases like these; one can read Margot Lee Shetterly’s book to get more concrete facts. The structure of Hidden Figures, scripted by director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) and Allison Schroeder (TV’s Miss 2059) — both white people — is in exactly that sweet spot that makes white people feel good about themselves, perhaps even convince some of them that “racism is over!”, but it has been made with more than simply good intentions, and the women’s voices feel very much like their own. Hidden Figures is smart enough to incorporate elements of the wider civil rights movement without trying to cram too many dangling plot points into its 127 minutes.
Hidden Figures is defined, more than anything else, by its three leads. Henson gets a moment that is designed explicitly for awards showreels, but the film’s cynicism doesn’t stretch beyond that instant. In every scene, all three of the actresses, including the revelation that is Monáe, dominate without stepping on each other. The film is undeniably calibrated for maximum heartstrings, but none of them would be tugged at all without this formidable trio. The support cast, outside of Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) as Henson’s suitor and Powell as the ever amicable Glenn, are nothing special, but the leads are ensemble enough for practically any movie.
Hidden Figures is your traditional feel good true story, elevated by its hitherto fore shrouded subject matter coming to light and its exemplary cast. Sometimes Oscar bait is for a good cause, and Hidden Figures may be the most solid cause of recent years.
Hidden Figures opened in Australian cinemas on February 16, 2017.
Directed by: Theodore Melfi.
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Glen Powell, Kirsten Dunst and Kevin Costner.