Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Review: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
Cert: PG / 127 mins / Dir. Theodore Melfi / Trailer

Oh, it may be February but we're not done with the historical socio-political drama just yet, thanks. Squeezing in before the awards-crush comes Hidden Figures, the largely true story of NASA's boundary-defying resource pooling, in an attempt to get a man into space before Russia. Even though they didn't. That's not a spoiler. But that's not what the film's about, anyway.

Short version: It's a good film.

That said… what you see in the trailer*1 is pretty much exactly what you get. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but the film holds no real surprises.

On the plus-side, the film's subject matter (both thematic and practical) is accessible enough for all audiences, although I often felt it was being a little too simplistic. The film has a borderline kitsch quality that regularly sits at odds with the drama. Not for the first time recently, I found myself squirming slightly, not with liberal-guilt but thinking "why aren't you more angry about this?". Even with the film's PG rating, Hidden Figures can't (indeed doesn't) ignore the racial tensions that make up the central dramatic thread. But they're treated in a way which almost becomes secondary to the story, somehow. The film often feels like it can't choose between being about the civil rights movement, the space-race or plain old-fashioned misogyny. And it shouldn't have to choose, because the story itself is about all three. Sadly, Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi's screenplay spins these plates unevenly, and not without condescension at times. The main problem is that the deeper the screenplay digs with the 'boo-hiss' pantomime theatrics surrounding racial politics of the early 1960s, the harder it's going to be to convincingly climb out of that hole in Act Three*2.

But despite my furrowed brow the film pulls the whole thing off rather well, although that's thanks to the cast, more than anything. Taraji Henson, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer outshine everyone else (rightfully so) as the trio of mathematical genii, even though their screen-time is split somewhat unevenly. Kevin Costner just about earns a pass as one of the most inefficient, if well-meaning, middle-managers you've ever seen, and everyone else is slightly too one-dimensional to be of any use.

Hidden Figures didn't blow me away, but it's a good film. Then again, I'm left thinking that it'd be pretty difficult to make a bad one out of a story this great.

That said... In the 'it looks like you're losing your job to a computer' scene near the end of the movie, both Katherine and Al are wearing glasses which have an anti-glare coating, catching the light in the room with a green and purple reflective sheen. Even assuming that such coatings were commonplace in prescription glasses in 1962, neither of them were working with VDU screens. That's very much the point of the entire dialogue, here. So they wouldn't be wearing those, now would they?

I hope the film's engineering and mathematics advisors put in more effort than the wardrobe department…

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The film's got a similar sort of vibe to The Help.
Although even that feelgood tale got angry when it needed to

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
It won't spoil your enjoyment of the film if you only manage to catch it on DVD.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
In the nicest possible way, no.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
It'll depend very much on why we're disagreeing.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: This film's got Octavia Spencer in it, and she performed voice-work in Zootropolis/Zootopia, alongside Alan 'K-2SO' Tudyk.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Although while I'm on, I have to say that Costner's line in the trailer, "math that doesn't exist yet" has annoyed the living fuck out of me for weeks, now. Leaving aside his use of a singular when it's clearly a plural, the mathematics Kevin - much like physics - exists whether you know about it or not. It's how things work, everywhere. What you mean is "I need maths that hasn't yet been discovered / refined / adapted". Are you really in charge here, Kevin? No wonder the Russians are waltzing into first place. Thankfully, there is a scene in the film where Taraji Henson's Katherine bitch-slaps the chewing gum out of Kevin's hand and points out that the formulae they need is in fact "really old" (Jim Parsons' character actually says this). But at no point does Kevin hand in his security pass with a thousand lines saying "I will not try and invent mathematics". Stick to being Robin Hood, pal. [ BACK ]

*2 The best line in this category comes late on, when Octavia Spencer's Dorothy passes a hand-towel to Kirsten Dunst's Vivian in the newly anointed mixed-race bathroom. In doing so, they briefly brush hands, causing them both to pause. Vivian looks up ruefully and says "Y'know Dorothy… despite what you may think, I have nothing against y'all. It's just the simplistic and heavy-handed way my composite character's been written in the screenplay for the last 80 pages." Although half of that quote may be subtext, admittedly. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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