Hidden Figures FILM REVIEW
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell
Rated PG for thematic elements and some language
Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
**** out of *****
Dorothy Vaughan (OCTAVIA SPENCER), Katherine G. Johnson (TARAJI P. HENSON) and Mary Jackson (JANELLE MONAE) prove that men aren't the only ones with the right stuff in HIDDEN FIGURES.
HIDDEN FIGURES chronicles the untold story of a group of women who were instrumental in getting the space program off the ground. It's been more than fifty years since Alan Shepard became the first American in space and more than thirty years since the last notable film, Philip Kaufman's THE RIGHT STUFF, about the start of the U.S. space program was released. It's amazing to think that after all these decades their story hadn't been told. I certainly didn't hear about any of this in history, science or astronomy classes and that was decades ago. Margot Lee Shetterly's novel only recently hit the shelves and director-writer Theodore Melfi now brings us the big screen adaptation of the lives of these mathematics pioneers.
Considering the subject matter, three black women working for N.A.S.A. while facing segregation and marginalization and taking a stand for feminism, this film could have easily followed the route that Lee Daniels took with his film THE BUTLER. Instead of telling a compelling and fascinating story he opted to give audiences an unwanted and heavy-handed civics lesson. In this film, the only moment that felt a bit much was how program director Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, dealt with the segregated restrooms on facility grounds. Other than that, Melfi doesn't dwell on or point his finger at a moment shouting "Do you see what they did there? Do you get it?" The social injustices are just part of the story and not THE story. His focus is on the women and how they persevered.
Melfi's film in some respects plays like a sidequel to Kaufman's film. While events in THE RIGHT STUFF are playing out, the film shows what's currently going on behind the scenes. The story becomes even richer as both films tend to complement each other. For example, John Glenn's orbit was a great sequence in Kaufman's film and now we have the perspective of the ground personnel as those events transpire. We really get to see just how important the work of these women, Katherine G. Johnson in this case, was for successfully sending Glenn up and bringing him home. Again, while these are significant moments in U.S. history Melfi continues to focus on the women.
Speaking of the women. The trio of Spencer, Henson and Monáe do a fine job of portraying these brilliant women who could run circles around their male colleagues. Their passion, conviction and intellect shine through the performances. It's not very hard to find oneself rooting for them as they prove that their ideas and opinions are just as valid and important as any man's. Henson in particular has the more prominent performance. There is one scene in particular where she dresses down a room as she spells out her anger and frustration at the mistreatment she is subjected to. There's no denying Spencer's ability as an actress. I was particularly taken by how she says something but while looking at her eyes and face you can tell there is so much more she wants to say. Monáe, in only her second feature film, effectively portrays her intelligence and where-with-all to fight for what she believes she should be afforded. Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons do a fine job with what they are given.
The film has a nice balance of comedy and drama. There are some humorous moments throughout, many at the expense of the clueless male counterparts. It's an engaging and entertaining drama which thankfully doesn't grow maudlin or heavy handed while addressing the relevant social issues prevalent at the time. Strong performances and a solid script effectively reveal this untold chapter in history. In the end one may very well be enticed to either read the book or do some further research into their story. A mind is a terrible thing to waste and this film definitely won't be a waste of yours or your time.