The Hippo


Nov 17, 2019








Hidden Figures (PG)

Hidden Figures (PG)
Film Reviews by Amy Diaz

By Amy Diaz

Hidden Figures (PG)

Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson worked on complex math for NASA but still dealt with several flavors of workplace discrimination in Hidden Figures, a look at the African-American female mathematicians who worked in the space program. 
Always way ahead of her peers in math, Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), in the late 1950s and early 1960s, is a “computer” — one of a group of women who did the complex math required for the still-young space program. Or, actually, she is one of two groups of women, since the computers are segregated by race, like everything else at the Langley campus in Virginia where they work. 
Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) runs the African-American computer pool, even though her title as supervisor is unofficial, as she frequently reminds Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), her boss. While Dorothy argues for her rightful promotion, she also helps to promote the careers of women like Katherine and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a fellow computer whose true desire is to become an engineer. Mary is called in to work with the team perfecting the capsule for manned space flight and Katherine is sent to work with the team trying to figure out exactly how to get that capsule into space and then bring it back. 
Meanwhile, as the massive new IBM is moved into the building, Dorothy decides to learn how to program it — teaching herself from a book she has to smuggle out of the “white” section of the town’s library — so that she and her computers can stay employable. 
Though we see all three women work to secure advancement at an agency that doesn’t seem particularly welcome to either women or African-Americans, the movie’s central focus is Katherine, who works on launch and landing for Project Mercury. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the beleaguered boss of her department, which is taking heat for the failures of early test launches and especially when the Russians successfully get Yuri Gagarin into space.  
Hidden Figures is a likeable, above-average movie that tells a fascinating story about fascinating people. Which is to say, the movie isn’t quite as good as everything the movie is about. And the “everything” might be part of the problem. In order to give us the stories of all three women, a lot of information is crammed into the movie that gets in the way of streamlined storytelling and of giving much depth to any one character. The movie can really only give us the surface of the career and family struggles of these women; it’s on the actresses, through facial expression or body language, to provide any of the little glimpses we get into their interior lives.
I don’t totally fault the movie for this. I was interested in Mary’s and Dorothy’s stories and I don’t think I’d want to lose any bits of them, even if it would make for a cleaner narrative. A subplot about Katherine, called Katherine Goble as the movie starts, meeting her second husband (her first husband has died a few years earlier when the movie starts) could have been a place to trim but I can also understand wanting to give a full picture of the woman. 
The movie does indulge in some Hollywood shorthand that I could have done without. Costner’s character and Jim Parsons, who shows up to play a one-note “prejudiced scientist,” both feel more like hasty writing than real people. And the movie is can feel a little “Cliffs Notes on Civil Rights” for how it deals with race, tending to tell not show about the role race plays in the women’s lives. 
But I can forgive this. The women at the center of Hidden Figures are interesting people I want to know more about. If sitting through a little Hollywooding is what it takes to get us the story of their lives, I am willing to make that trade. B+
Rated PG for thematic elements and some language. Directed by Theodore Melfi with a screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly), Hidden Figures is two hours and seven minutes long and distributed by 20th Century Fox.

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