Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Hidden Figures"

 4 / 5  

There are moments when Hidden Figures achieves the near-impossible task of being a quieter, more bookish counterpart to 1983's majestic The Right Stuff, and there are also times when it seems like a lesser and overly earnest HBO docudrama, so while I can barely do basic math without a calculator, I'd say that the cinematic average of those two extremes gives us a simple solution to a complex formula: Hidden Figures is a very good movie.

If it falls just short of achieving orbit, it's not the fault of the three truly remarkable actresses -- Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe -- who are at the center of the film, which tells the true story of three genius-level black women who overcome the oppressive segregation of the 1960s to help NASA send white men into space, while working at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, no less.

Henson, Spencer and Monáe, with fine support by Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst (both playing slightly villainous roles), make Hidden Figures never less than compelling and frequently outstanding.

But the screenplay, by director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, contains a frustrating, if laudatory, desire to take on too much.  Even at three and a half hours, The Right Stuff felt condensed, and it wasn't trying to offer up distinctive characters; Hidden Figures tells a parallel, quieter story of how these three particular women contributed, despite the rampant bigotry of the day, and at two hours sometimes feels overstuffed and unfocused.

Henson's character, Katherine Goble, is a "computer" long before we used that word to define the kind of compact metal tablet I'm typing on, a tablet that, it's famously been noted, has more computing power than anything used by the women in Hidden Figures.  She might be one of the smartest people on the planet, but she's a black woman, which in the early 1960s counted for very little at all.

Katherine drives in to work every morning with Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe), where they head to the dingy, underground office reserved for "colored computers."  Their brains are vital to NASA's success, but they're quite literally pushed into a corner, called upon when the "smarter" white men can't figure things out.

As NASA gets deeper into trouble during the Soviet-dominated days of the space race, the agency needs the best brains it can get, so its bureaucracy, represented by the spiteful-because-she-doesn't-know-any-better office manager played by Dunst, who takes the role and manages to give it some humanity.  Katherine Goble, in particular, shines as she is placed into the Space Task Group department headed up by Al Harrison, a fictitious amalgam of all of the buzz-cut-and-white-shirt engineers who got the credit for what NASA accomplished.

The story itself would be dazzling if it were simply about the number-crunchers who made it all work, but the reality that these big brains were dominated by the even bigger brains of Goble, Vaughan and Jackson, who were dismissed and degraded because of their double-strike of being black women makes Hidden Figures very much worth seeing.

And yet the movie is at times miscalculates its trajectory -- its primary problem being that these women are so fascinating and charismatic when at work that their home lives seem bland and drama-free by comparison.  Hidden Figures keeps cutting to their rather ordinary personal lives just when it should be amping up the drama at NASA.

Adding to that, Monáe's engineer character is thinly written, and Spencer's move from computing to programming the massive IBM mainframe is given short shrift.  (In one fine, clever moment, leads her all-black, all-women team out of the tiny office, and the exodus is filmed like the arrival of the Mercury 7 in The Right Stuff, substituting Hans Zimmer's pedestrian score for Bill Conti's soaring strings.) Hidden Figures tends to focus more on Henson, which is hardly a problem given that she is spectacular in the role; a scene in which she courageously, confidently tells off her boss (Costner) might be the most genuine and heartbreaking moment any actress has provided this year.

But it can't quite balance the three characters.  Hidden Figures is so captivated (and rightly so) by Goble's story that Vaughan and Jackson at times seem afterthoughts.  It's only a shame because Spencer and Jackson are both terrific in their roles -- I especially wanted to see more of Monáe, both the actress and her character, because she shines so brightly in her scenes.

In the midst of this too-big story, Hidden Figures also brings in the Mercury astronauts, and it becomes as enamored of John Glenn as The Right Stuff did.  No one will ever quite match what Ed Harris did with that role, but actor Glen Powell cuts a commanding, beguiling figure as the heroic astronaut.

With perfect mid-century production design and some well-considered cinematography that captures the mood exquisitely, there's so much that's right with Hidden Figures that in the end it's much easier for moviegoers to forgive its mistakes than, say, the astronauts to forgive any errors the women or any of their counterparts might have made.  Its personal stories aren't quite as epic as the space flights the women helped make happen -- but it turns out they're just as influential, and maybe even a tiny bit more inspiring.

Viewed Dec. 28, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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