Hidden Figures (2017) (Review)

Hidden Figures is an unfortunately timely release. At a time in which racial segregation and dividing is present with increasing effect, it takes a film like Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, to remind us of the importance of unity and teamwork. It's an inexplicably crowd-pleasing and inspiration piece of cinema that plays by the book in order to achieve its desired pay-off and has found itself in the running for Best Picture at the forthcoming Academy Awards for doing so. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae star as three black female NASA employees whose extraordinary talent and intelligence was crucial in NASA's mission to send an astronaut into space in the 1960s. Based on the untold true story, of course inspiring the title of the picture, Hidden Figures is as feel-good as they come.

Despite their brilliance, intelligence and drive, Katherine G. Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monae) find themselves unfairly treated and segregated because of the colour of their skin in 1960s America. During NASA's mission to launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit, the trio's potential is finally recognised and they are scouted to bring their knowledge and expertise into the Space Race at a critical time for the country's space programme. Having to work ten times harder just to earn the basic dignity of their colleagues, Hidden Figures tells the galvanising efforts of the ladies, in spite of the racist atmosphere and society that seeks to stop them from bringing their brain power to the fold.

Hidden Figures is as narratively appealing as they come, terrifically managing to inspire a generation and demonstrate an untouched and unconsidered slice of American history that has been hidden for too long. Just as the title cleverly suggests, Figures tells the unheard story of the three women at the centre and their invaluable efforts to NASA's 'Friendship Mission 7', adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's novel of the same name. A story of empowerment and overcoming adversary, sheer joy can be found running through the bones of the film, from the cheerful soundtrack to the more subtle directorial flourishes from Theodore Melfi. It manages to create a deft tonal balance between the difficult and sensitive themes of racism, segregation and patriarch with a jubilation found in its humour and wit through a script so sharp that it had audiences 'ooh-ing' and 'ahh-ing' at almost every juncture of the tale, scooping up men, women and children of all ages for the ride. Its soaring story will touch even the hardest of hearts and its moral consideration is a collaboration of the heart and mind, deftly conjuring a warm, stirring and lovely emotional pay-off. Hidden Figures brings just the right amount of light for the dark and represents a fine balancing act perfected by Melfi, who ensures we are fully invested in an already mapped-out story because of the beautiful, captivating leads that populate it.

Absolute delightful, the three leads of Hidden Figures empower the film to a level of greatness, with infectious and loveable performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae. What's wonderful is that you cannot separate these performances as they all are so committed to bringing these characters and their stories to the screen that rivalry is simply not a factor. Henson is the obvious lead and we spend a lot of time in her company, making Katherine a magnet for the audience's emotion as we experience every knock back and hurdle she faces. As with all the ladies, we are convinced she will succeed because she has the brain, ability and potential to do so but Henson ensures her journey to that place is powerful and moving every step of the way. Octavia Spencer's Dorothy Vaughan is the person you would want to hug you and tell you everything is going to be okay, with Dotty's fierce determination and loyalty to the women of her class encompassing of her general loving and considerate personality. Janelle Monae, with far less experience than her Oscar-nominted counterparts, is terrific as Mary Jackson with a radiating confidence that wins her a number of laughs and our admiration. Each of the women are given their respective moments to shine and they do so with a luminosity that formulates this sensational ensemble cast to be among one of the very best this Oscar season, with a true gravity to their performances that raised each of them to the very pinnacle of their generation. It's worth mentioning the decent supporting cast who, while understandably are not always afforded the character development of the three leads, support the story well enough, with special mentions deserving for Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali and Glen Powell (although the woefully-cast Jim Parsons not so much...). It is so wonderful to see a story that puts women at the absolute centre and these three superb actresses make it worth every second of your time.

Hidden Figures is an unashamedly paint-by-numbers biopic that never attempts to push the boundaries, strictly adhering to the formula of the 'racism' narrative. Every single cliche and trope is thrown at the film and the film-makers use each opportunity to hook, line and sinker the audience in a predictably fashion, calculating the desired emotion from the audience with usually decent effect.  Those looking for a film with a little more nuance and control will find this picture frustrating as it never indulges in the art of subtlety. Unlike the subject matter of the film, Figures never attempts to push artistic boundaries and reach out beyond its comfort zone; considering this is a film about women who were required to push against convention and tradition, it's a shame the film cannot learn from them. It is a dot-to-dot story and just like the puzzle itself, you find yourself looking ahead and predicting the outcome before the final dots are even in sight. It is a true life story so it can't always afford the element of surprise to viewers, but even so, you are willing the film to find a more savvy and perceptive method to deliver the events of the story, as the women at the centre deserve. Its predictability is an Achilles heel, along with the fact that it on occasions becomes a little monotonous, with the need of a ten minute trim to tighten the film.

Even with its narrative flaws and predictability, Hidden Figures is an immensely uplifting and satisfying feel-good film that shines a spotlight on a unrevealed part of American history. You will be hard-pressed to find somebody not smiling like a fool when the film wraps up and its time to exit the screening, meaning it succeeds on winning audiences around and ticks almost every single box. It's as paint-by-numbers as they come (when it really should be a little more imaginative) but the sparkling performances of the three three leads help elevate it past its restrictive narrative formula. Outside of these conventionality issues, it is a well-told story that opens the window into an untold but important area of human history; it is made with so much heart and charm and acts as a genuinely compelling piece of cinema that feels wholly relatable even today, expertly balancing its themes and tones with great insight and care. Hidden Figures may not be the most nuanced, spectacular piece of cinema or Best Picture contender this year, but it is certainly one of the most irresistible and uplifting, telling a heartening story of human history in an entertaining, crowd-pleasing and informative way.


Summary: Hidden Figures is an immensely uplifting and inspirational crowd-pleaser that shines a light on the unknown efforts of three influential black women working for NASA in the 60s, who are stunningly brought to life by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae's terrifically witty and committed performances.

Highlight: The sass of these women is incredible - the script gives them some wonderfully witty comebacks that the cast handle flawlessly.