I feel like a broken record when discussing films like “Hidden Figures” that take great real-life stories and turn them into underwhelming feel good movies. There’s always the potential for a terrific film right beneath the surface that gets mangled by sappy narrative choices that often add a hyper level of IMPORTANCE to the proceedings. The story is never considered strong enough by filmmakers to stand on its own; they have to add bits and pieces to the sides to create some monster designed to give viewers good vibes and a slight sense of onanistic superiority when compared with the jerks holding down the heroes on screen.
What is frustrating is the potential for what could be given the topic films like “Hidden Figures” covers. This film hits on the role African-American women played in developing America’s space program in the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on the achievements of NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). The subject is fresh territory complete with fun information about space and featuring brilliant women whose contributions were minimized because of rampant racism and sexism. This is also the damning thing about movies like “Hidden Figures”: They are necessary to tell an unheard story to a broad audience and offer credit to people who have long deserved it. A documentary, though a much better route for conveying the information, simply would not garner the mass audience a fictionalized version starring Henson, Spencer and Monáe would.
Necessary does not directly result in a good film, no matter the subject matter and the stars (the aforementioned leads along with Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali) attached to it. “Hidden Figures” is hindered by the same mistakes other feel good movies sustain to cater to a mass audience. This movie is heavy handed with the lessons it wants to impart and the methods it does so, screaming its themes of equality and persistence to the high heavens and showing the racial inequality of Virginia circa 1961 in a finger-wagging, pedantic fashion.
Characters in the film’s world speak less in dialogue and more in grand speeches, lecturing others (and, by extension, the audience) amid quotidian exchanges to, once again, prove some grand important point to people who already agree with it. The few moments when Katherine, Dorothy and Mary engage in some normal banter or get drunk on whiskey and dance around comes as more than a relief for the viewer than they should.
The underlying issue though is the exchange of historical importance for audience catharsis, as if the needs of the audience matters more than the story being told. “Hidden Figures” succumbs to this by inserting a few crowd-pleasing moments in meant to make the film more palatable and far less honest to the story and era. Inserting a couple of fantastic falsities, for example Costner’s composite character destroying a racial restroom sign, obfuscate the real tidbits like how John Glenn personally requested Katherine Johnson to double check key calculations before he went into orbit. The downside to melding fiction and fact is the fiction more often than not comes out on top, leaving the facts to drown.
At least “Hidden Figures” is a competent entry into the feel-good genre. Henson and Spencer both excel at their respective roles and Monáe holds her own despite a squiffy southern accent; the aforementioned scenes when the three of them are shooting the breeze or trying to hook up Henson’s Johnson with Ali’s charming Col. Jim Johnson are rather sweet. And the film is at its best when it depicts the three working at NASA, whether by writing complex equations on a chalkboard or figuring out how a complex IBM machine works. It’s rare for any film to show brilliance used in a logical and pragmatic fashion, so actually seeing the genius of these women applied is sort of fun to watch come to life. It’s difficult to not root for “Hidden Figures” to succeed because all of the elements for a very good to great movie are right there; it’s the desire to use them to their full capacity that’s missing.
– Eric Mungenast is a Boston-based film critic who used to live in the East Valley.