Following his 2014 indie “St. Vincent”, writer/director Theodore Melfi delivers one of 2016’s most heartwarming and rousing true stories. If Taraji P. Henson (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) does snag her second Oscar nomination, along with presumed nominees from “Fences” and “Moonlight,” the Academy might take credit for the diversity reversal, compared with last year’s #Oscarsowhite. The fact is “Hidden Figures,” along with the other films mentioned, are not a product of anything other than dang good filmmaking. This crowd pleaser has all the ingredients I believe a ticket buyer is looking for; an untold true story, honorable performances, equal moments of comedy and heartbreak, all combined in a swell of knowledge and admiration.
Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe) all work for NASA in 1961, as America is frantically trying to get one of our own into space. These three women are not only some of the brightest minds in their field, but on top of solving life and death mathematical equations, they also deal with segregation, slights and racism in the work place. Al Harrison (Costner) who is head of the Space Task Force in Langley, can’t understand why Johnson, the most complex mind in his group, disappears for long periods throughout the day. When she finally explains it’s because there are no bathrooms for blacks in their building, he takes drastic measures so she can focus on John Glenn’s return to Earth trajectory.
“Here at NASA we all pee the same color,” he says, following the violent destruction of the segregation sign above the black’s bathroom.
“Hidden Figures” and “The Help” have more in common than Octavia Spencer. Both films entertain, teach and inspire. Melfi’s filmmaking abilities have greatly improved since his 2014 mainstream debut. “Hidden Figures” is a careful balancing act, working at its best when all three actresses share scenes throughout the picture, even if their friendship isn’t historically accurate. Henson is the lead, playing against type from what movie fans, and her television followers have seen her do. She has a particular key scene in the film, the “enough is enough” moment that elevates Katherine from character work to dynamic performance. Spencer’s role comparatively is quieter, the least showy, a departure from her Oscar-winning performance as Minnie. It’s also different from the last time she starred with Costner in “Black or White” (2014). Janelle Monáe and Mahershala Ali are having a stellar year, both excellent here and together in “Moonlight.”
Melfi isn’t offering the artistry you will find in other awards contenders like “Nocturnal Animals,” or eye-popping technical achievements in “La La Land.” “Hidden Figures” has it’s own particular style that values enjoyment more than anything else. The supporting actors help craft this into one of the year’s most impressive ensembles. Kevin Costner, who isn’t given enough depth or screen time to really earn awards recognition, is still an anchor for the film. Kirsten Dunst is perfectly cast. It’s difficult to make an enjoyable film in a time period where women were considered less than men and black women even lower. This script certainly touches on that, but more so on their achievements, the ground they broke and how they used intelligence to do it. It’s a crowd pleaser, a true ensemble and one of the year’s best films.
Final Thought – Not since “The Help,” has a film balanced importance and entertainment so evenly handed. Hidden Figures is a must see.