#REVIEW: “HIDDEN FIGURES”
Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
As the United States continues the Space Race with Russia in the early 1960s, a gifted team of African-American women (initially relegated to the “Colored Computers” department of NASA) were using their mathematical and engineering expertise to help behind the scenes.
Having attended the exclusive preview of Hidden Figures at TIFF this past September, my expectations for the final Film were more inflated than I would like to admit. I was apprehensive on how Co-Writer/Director Theodore Melfi would do based on the Film’s content and how wildly different it is from his entertaining debut St. Vincent. But my fears were put to rest quite quickly. The scope of the Film is terrific, and allows the audience to genuinely feel the sheer enormity of the contributions these women made to space exploration – despite enduring inexcusably racist office politics. The look Melfi brings to the Film is eerily authentic, from the vibrant sets right down to the exquisite costumes. You would never guess this was only his second feature.
And despite some of the lyrics being a little too scene-specific, Pharrell’s soundtrack is filled with toe-tapping, catchy songs that only help emphasize how much effort Melfi and his production team put into the Film’s details. Believe me when I say I have been humming and singing Runnin’ to myself since September.
What really makes Hidden Figures so special is the spectacular performances by the Film’s three leads: Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe and especially Taraji P. Henson. They are great in their roles and have plenty of moments to shine, lending a gravitas to these gifted women’s struggles to perform their jobs. Some of their dialogue and grand cinematic monologues are a little too triumphantly staged, especially when compared to the stark minimalism of Jeff Nichols’ Loving (which tackled similar themes of racism and civil rights). But the passion these women put into their characters, the humour it brings out in them and the sizzling chemistry they share in scenes together are simply magnificent.
Supporting turns from Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons and Scream Queens’ Glen Powell are also very well done. Costner gets the juiciest scenes of the supporting players, bringing a hardened nuance to a role that makes us remember how great of an actor he can be. Dunst and Parsons are effectively infuriating and rather humourous as representations of NASA’s backwards attitude towards women and African-Americans in the 1960s. And while his performance is a little more bittersweet now, Powell has a lot of fun as recently-deceased astronaut John Glenn.
Where Hidden Figures stumbles is in the depiction of the lead women’s home lives. Their work lives are extraordinary and richly detailed – but there is no real depth given to the relationships with their families. These storylines come across as cookie cutter and practically inconsequential to everything else. After learning how supportive their families are of their goals, the Film has no real reason to go back to them. Even a romantic subplot between Henson and Oscar front-runner Mahershala Ali comes across as ill-advised and completely out of place. I understand why Melfi included these fluffier moments, but they distract from what makes this story matter.
Hidden Figures is a genuine crowd-pleaser from beginning to end. The Film soars when Melfi focuses on these incredible women doing their jobs, but is a little hokey and trivial when he focuses on their lives at home. Thankfully the performances more than make up for the Film’s faults, and Pharrell’s music will send you Runnin’ to grab the soundtrack immediately after the lights come up.
20th Century Fox Canada release HIDDEN FIGURES across Canada on Friday, January 6, 2017.