A disclosure that I can only get away with on a personal blog: the reason that the concept of a movie largely involved with academics in general puts me usually is the same as one of the (many) reasons that I, Grad student of computers, hate school. I can’t stand chalkboard sounds. Something about the silent scraping of chalk against that calcium sulfate material always gets my teeth grinding and on edge about how easily it could go wrong. There’s always a fine gravelly tone for the contact, no matter how softly you write. Chalkboard makes me anxious.
Anyway, part of the reason why Hidden Figures kept me from enjoying it was the fact that, because it revolved around characters needing to make calculations that are apparent to the audience and that means literal visual representations and that means a lot of chalkboards. It’s imperative to the plot of the film after all, which is to follow on three of the unsung heroines of the NASA Project Mercury between 1961-62 (the project lasted from 1958-1963, early in the Space Race). Which, being a Space enthusiast, obviously interested me heavily enough to forego the fact that I couldn’t even finish director Theodore Melfi’s first feature St. Vincent. To be honest, his bland “history class movie” work here is not good either and yet another reason why I didn’t dig Hidden Figures enough to understand why it’s such a heavy contender for the Best Picture Oscar.
Those unsung heroines of the field are notably African-American women working in a dungeon-esque basement in a bland building in NASA away from the real projects at the beginning of the film. The three central ones in our focus are Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who spends the majority of her screentime going through a painstaking academic crucible to be promoted from mathematician to engineer, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the much-labored de facto supervisor-without-the-title of all the Afro-American female calculators who ends up getting ahead of NASA on their integration of IBM’s computers, and very much at the front of the picture, Katharine Johnson nee Goble (Taraji P. Henson), whose accuracy with complex calculations meant that she was able to figure trajectories and landing points better than the IBMs and helped send John Glenn (Glen Powell) to space and back again.
If I do admit I somewhat dug Hidden Figures, it’s by the skin of its teeth and thanks entirely to its cast. You see, Hidden Figures is the sort of movie that under a director as lazy as Melfi pushes everything right into the indiscernable background of the film just to prostrate itself to actors (this as opposed to the much more skilled Pablo Larrain’s Oscarbait biopic this year, Jackie, which is undeniably a showcase for Natalie Portman’s performance but also an overall brilliantly crafted examination in trauma, grief, and identity). And when I say indiscernable, I mean, I can’t waste any more words trying to think of a manner that Melfi tries to make the movie have any personality beyond its soundtrack – a mix between Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch trying to use unrecognizable motifs to make this feel like a Kevin Costner vehicle from the late 80s to Pharrell Williams writing original songs trying so hard to recreate the James Brown stylings of 1960s rhythm music. Otherwise, it’s the least effort I’ve seen in a visual vocabulary.
Part of why this movie needed to have its cast – especially its three leads – do the heavy-lifting is from the frank fact that there is not as much fascination made with what the three did than it is with the fact that they ARE black women and unlike Tim Brayton, I really have no problem with that being the point of the film. The film portrays Johnson’s mathematical capability like it’s practically casual for her and the bigotry is the only real roadblock to seeing her accomplishments. In the meantime, the only reason Jackson has a tough time being allowed to join the engineers or Vaughan getting the recognition she deserves for being overworked as a supervisor without the recognition she earns for it is because of their color while their gender leads to them being doubted by many of the black men surrounding them, including briefly Johnson’s obvious to-be-husband Lt. Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, because he’s everywhere in 2016 and I don’t mind with the life he gives to a functional role pretending the story is about his eagerness to marry Katherine). Could the film be less lead-footed about it? Lord, YES. There are two speeches by Henson given to Johnson and her supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner as the good white man who again makes it work in his Costner wholesomeness) and they are brilliantly delivered, especially the latter in its exhausted fieriness, but the dialogue does her no favors overstating themes and the script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder never gets better.
And yet Monae provides more proof that with enough screentime, she can use sparks to make a presence even when her character is only driven by step-by-step plotting (Jackson’s academic pursuits are the least-developed area in the script). Spencer uses her usual screen persona to embody a mother hen role that portrays not only how easily she can have a relationship with our leads and the rest of the computers and defend their jobs, but even lets that extend to Vaughan’s skill with machinery, continuously remaking “that a girl” when she maneuvers a computer or car or tv or radio with ease and making it totally not hokey. And Henson… Henson’s facials alone embody a weariness and lack of confidence that translates to more focus on her work. And then Henson uses that build into an arc of growing confidence to call things how she sees it and finally get a seat at the table. It’s a performance deserving of a better movie. All of the performances are (save for Jim Parsons being… a non-entity). It’s a story deserving of a better director. The movie may have finally given these real-life heroines credit, but I’m cannot give it much more beyond its actors.