The Watchers

The Watchers

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Review: Hidden Figures (UK Cert PG)

Telling the previously untold stories of three black women who worked for NASA in the 1960s, Hidden Figures (directed by Theodore Melfi) is based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.

It was the surprise winner of the top prize- Outstanding Performance By A Cast In A Motion Picture- at the Screen Actors' Guild Awards 2017 but, having seen the film, it's an accolade that's truly deserved as every member of the ensemble is pitch perfect.

It's been a stellar year for impressive female lead roles but Taraji P. Henson is unlucky not to be recognised for her role as Katherine Goble (later Johnson), the mathematician who helps plan the trajectory for John Glenn's Friendship 7 launch. It's a powerful and strong central performance. Katherine is a multi-faceted character- a widow, a mother, a brilliant mathematician, a black woman in a white world with all the attendant prejudices (having to use the coloured bathrooms in a different building, being given her own coffee pot rather than being allowed to use the communal one). She gets one particularly powerful moment when- drenched in a rainshower from coming back from the bathroom- she lays into her boss about her current circumstances when he questions her about where she goes.

Octavia Spencer is strong as Katherine's friend Dorothy Vaughan. Denied a supervisor's position (despite doing the work), Dorothy catches wind that NASA have bought an IBM computer to replace the work done by the manual computing team. Teaching herself FORTRAN and actually getting the IBM to work, she begins to find a new use for herself. Spencer gets some good scenes against Kirsten Dunst, who plays supervisor Vivien Mitchell, including one where she gets to call out Mitchell's implied or unconscious racism (which elicited a big laugh from the audience)

Janelle Monae is the third 'hidden figure', Mary Jackson, who wants to be an engineer. Mary fights through the courts to be allowed to study at a segregated night school in order to get the qualifications she needs to become an engineer. She's the most forthright and outspoken of the three, but it's a really nicely rounded performance. The rapport and chemistry between the three leads is really quite lovely and very believable which lends an authenticity to their scenes.

Other performances are similarly great. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, head of NASA's Space Task Group. A stern but fair boss, determined to get to the stars, he comes round to respecting Katherine, letting her in to briefings and giving her clearance needed, much to the chagrin of head engineer Paul Stafford (The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons in a role which allows him to be more than just a Sheldon clone). There's a nice turn by Mahershala Ali as Colonel Jim Johnson, a soldier who falls in love with Katherine despite them not getting off on the right foot. Glen Powell is also good as astronaut John Glenn.

Much like Loving, the evocation of the 1960s setting is exacting- the nascent civil rights movement and the spectre of the Cold War being the most prevalent ones. A scene where Dorothy and her sons are manhandled out of a library for being in the whites-only section and Mary's husband watching a news report of a bus being bombed give weight to the era. There's a good use of archive/cine-footage from the time throughout too.

This is a fascinating film, shedding light on stories that aren't well known. It's got humour, drama, pathos. It's uplifting and a great way to spend a few hours.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Hidden Figures is on general release in the UK from 17th February 2017

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