Hidden Figures is directed by Theodore Melfi, and is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same name. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Mahershala Ali. The film features a score by Hans Zimmer and original songs by Pharrell Williams, who also served as one of the film’s producers.
Hidden Figures is set in the early 1960s, and follows the lives of Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, all of whom are employed in a segregated department at NASA. Despite their knowledge and skills, they are constantly passed over and never given the proper credit. As the space program advances, the women step forward and do their part to move forward, with their talents and research being employed in America’s first manned space launches, as well as in maintaining and utilizing the world’s first super computers.
It is always fun to see films based on actual events and the untold heroes of American history, and Hidden Figures, while certainly not a perfect film, does a good job overall shedding light on these often overlooked pioneers of American space travel.
By far the best asset of Hidden Figures is its cast. The lead trio of Henson, Spencer, and Monae have definite chemistry together, and it shows in every scene of the movie. Struggling with challenges that include discrimination in and out of the work place, raising children, and finding ways to apply themselves in an unkind world, we sympathize with all of them, and yet find ourselves laughing along with them in the movie’s more lighthearted moments. The supporting cast has its highlights, namely Kevin Costner as a program director at NASA, but this is the three women’s movie first and foremost.
As someone who was not widely familiar with the accomplishments of the women depicted in the film, it is difficult for me to say how historically accurate the aspects of the movie are, but it is worth mentioning that the real life Katherine Johnson, then 98 years old, viewed a pre-screening of the film and voiced her approval of Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of her, so that should say something positive regarding the final product.
As far as the actual structure of the film goes, we cover a lot of ground in a duration that slightly exceeds two hours. There are so many subplots and characters and so much going on that it is difficult to keep up with the various story elements at times. In fact, one could argue that there is enough material covered here that could fill two or even three separate films! There are some great scenes with Henson and her husband-to-be, a National Guard soldier portrayed by Mahershala Ali, but because there is already so much going on, their romance never really gets to play a major part in the plot, which is a shame given the talent featured here. Other subplots (mostly regarding the other two main female characters) are hinted at but do tend to get shafted by comparison.
In these regards, historical films based on actual events are some the most difficult movies to make, as well as to review. Is the studio trying to create the next big Hollywood blockbuster that will bring in a billion dollars, or do they want to make something historically accurate that does its subject justice? Straddling this line and not going too far in either direction is a challenge that anyone making a film like this must face. Fortunately, Hidden Figures is largely a success due to its charismatic cast and giving viewers a look at some of American history’s unsung heroes. At the time I am writing this review, the film is only in limited release, but when it goes into wide release, I anticipate a solid box office draw, as well as satisfied reviews from critics and fans alike.
One minor weakness of an otherwise solid film is that it tens to come off as a little too “preachy” at times. The black struggle in America has long been a popular subject in films based on actual historic events, and it is certainly an eye opener to see that even NASA was initially no stranger to discrimination. But the movie is too blatant on a few occasions, with all too familiar sights that have been done to death in films like this. Mostly, the film succeeds in this regard, but there are a few moments that are going to feel quite familiar, derivative, and overdone.
The other issue I had with the film was the use of contemporary music. When you set a movie in the past, the soundtrack already exists; no new contemporary songs are typically necessary. There are a few vintage songs in the movie, including those by classic artists like Ray Charles, and I wish the movie had gone more in this direction. Pharrell Williams is a talented musician, but his new songs for the movie stick out like a sore thumb and seem out of place in a film set in the 1960s.
Despite a few issues here and there, Hidden Figures manages to succeed more often than it falters, providing an interesting look back at some of the space program’s unsung heroes amidst trying times and discrimination. When it goes into wide release, it is worth seeing.
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