Hidden Figures is the least of the three African-American led Oscar-bait pics making a charge for the pinnacle of this year’s award season. Unlike Moonlight and Fences, it will probably be remembered as being a gentle – yet entertaining enough – cousin to those excoriating examples of downtrodden lives.
Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P. Henson) is, along with Mary Jackson (Jonelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) a “computer” – basically a human calculator – for NASA during the Mercury phase of the space race. With the Russians sending mannequins, dogs and then a man into orbit, the space program’s maths department is under pressure to deliver and get John Glenn into space. This means taking risks like installing a room-sized, under-tested IBM computer, and letting black women have security clearances (much to the chagrin of the all-white department; Henson’s quietly reluctance at being demoted to a “colored only” coffee pot is heartbreaking).
The film takes a linear approach to the high drama, both in terms of narrative and the workmanlike direction, yet this does allow the everyday indignities that the women suffer pile up until, in a scene centred around the distance from her desk to the coloured-only restroom on the other side of campus, Henson lets rip in an effective tirade that enlivens the film, whilst still not quite dispelling the notion its final destination was intended to be as an Oscar clip.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with the central trio as charismatic as expected, Mahershala Ali continuing his hot streak of seemingly being in everything this year, and Jim Sheldon dialling down the Big Bang geekery whilst building an arc from distrust of Katherine the “computer” to begrudging acceptance of Katherine the woman. And if you think a line like “At NASA, we all pee the same colour” couldn’t possibly work with a straight face, well, here’s Kevin Costner’s reliably superhuman solidity to prove you wrong. Only Kirsten Dunst’s prissy turn as the computers’ conservative supervisor fails to hold interest, but then again that is possibly due to the fact her underwritten character could have been called Aunty Progression, and it would have been a more subtle indicator of her motivations.
Cast aside, the film’s main strengths play out in the details, such as a dolly down the length of a bus that matter-of-factly settles on a black family crammed in the back, or the width between a white parade audience and the snubbed black one. Yet behind the period mise-en-scene lies basic screenwriting issues; this is one of those films where there is no real argument in the audience’s mind about who is right and wrong, and there is no hurdle that cannot be overcome with an impassioned speech. Also problematic is that there is intrinsically no threat as to whether or not John Glenn (here played as an angelic boy scout, a la Chris Evans’ pre-serum Captain America, and a blandly far cry from Ed Harris’ spiky Glenn in The Right Stuff) will make his launch date. All this, and the unfortunate invention of a mission fault that thuds home at the expense of any agency previously granted to the central trio, means that ultimately you have a film that – rather like an early NASA rocket – ultimately points itself in the right direction, yet doesn’t quite make the landing.
Hidden Figures is out on general release across the UK from 17th February.