Review: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (2016)
Dir: Theodore Melfi

It’s often a winning formula, take a largely forgotten true story that touches on relevant social issues, cast some strong leads in empowering roles, sprinkle in some excellent music and try to turn an account of a troubling time in relatively recent history into something uplifting.

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a math genius, working at NASA in the 1960’s, brilliantly intelligent and very capable at her job, as are her friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), yet they are constantly contending with obstacles related to their being black women in that era.

This film unashamedly tackles big themes of racial and gender equality, somehow managing to handle both with suitable weight, and I give it a lot of credit for that as it would be very easy to mess up one or both of those. I do think however that it would like to be a lot more hard-hitting than it is, as while it tackles these themes it doesn’t grapple much with the deeper or darker aspects of them, choosing to keep things light, fun and enjoyable in almost every case.

There are far more scenes of space exploration than I ever expected, sadly I think they get a little too ‘Apollo 13’ than the film needs. It would have done well to stay grounded, Katherine’s share in the space race is firmly in the space center and so keeping the scenes to the mission control side of things that she was a part of would have been a better way of depicting those successes. I didn’t feel that I needed to see shots in space or of the capsules to understand their challenges or eventually to celebrate with her and her colleagues when their efforts pay off.

What we could have had more of is the detail of the mathematical work. We are told Katherine is a genius, people look at her work and exclaim how brilliant it is and how remarkable she is, but we never get any detail why it’s so outstanding. It focuses on the characters and the human interest side of the story, which in the historical context is very interesting, though it nearly completely eschews the scientific details. They forget a key rule of filmmaking, don’t tell it, show it! Don’t just tell us she’s a genius and has completed mathematical work that her colleagues were unable to do, show us more detail, even if it boggles the audience a little that in itself would help get the point across that her skills are extraordinary.

There’s a lot to like about this movie, it’s really enjoyable and the performances are fantastic but it feels like it lacks the hefty punch that it clearly wants to have. Though it nicely balances being entertaining with conveying a strong message, there are many other films in recent years that have addressed similar social issues with more impact, so while this is more fun and enjoyable to watch than most of them, I think it truly wanted to be considered as more weighty.

This story is now being adapted into a television series, which I think could be really good, especially if the characters are all fully developed as an even-handed ensemble as this film struggles to give each character the attention they deserve. It’s certainly a production I’ll keep my eye out for to see who gets cast and how it develops because it could be really enjoyable and go better into depth about the some of the scientific and social developments of the era.

‘Hidden Figures’ is available to buy, rent, or stream from all the usual outlets. It was nominated for 3 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Octavia Spencer’s supporting role, in the end winning none of them. With the story now apparently being adapted into a television series, I’ll look out for that when it hopefully comes out next year and I’ll review it when it does.

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