Friday, 24 February 2017

Film Review: Hidden Figures is irresistible, good natured, educational fun

Hidden Figures marketed itself on being more than just a true story. All the posters and all the trailers added one more word, "Untold". It's a word that kind of worried me going into the film. Would Hidden Figures be driven by its untold story? Would it be smug in the fact that it was revealing this story, and would it force its themes too heavily because of that? There's little worse than a film that packs a powerful story, true or not, but is so heavy handed with its themes that the power is lost amid the preaching.

Hidden Figures starts well. After a brief and almost unnecessary flashback scene, we're introduced to its three leading ladies - Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Hensen), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) - in a smart and enjoyable sequence that immediately identifies the strengths and characteristics of each individual. Then we get the groundwork, they work at NASA but are refined to the segregated Coloured areas of the building. After the Russian Space Programme successfully launches a satellite into space, NASA wants to speed up their own progress. As Katherine is known to be the smartest woman in her office, she is assigned to work in the Space Task Group, being the first African-American woman to do so.

That strange opening flashback aside, things move quickly and the story unfolds in an enjoyable way. Early on it avoids any big moments, instead letting subtle character flourishes lead the story - when Katherine first returns home after a long day, there isn't any big family fall out, instead she just tucks her children in to bed and talks to them like any good parent would. Aside from one almost laughably heavy handed moment in which Mary's high heel gets stuck in a grate as she first enters a room full of men, the thematic work is foregrounded nicely too.

Because of this strong, character driven opening, the film has more time to expand into the racial politics of the 1960s by the second act. The topic of segregation is prominent in the film - even outside of NASA, we see rallies outside libraries and speeches on shop window televisions - but never overplayed. Hidden Figures' script, penned by Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, keenly leans on humour to help balance out the heavier stuff - much like the film's tackling of racism, humour is consistent but never overpowering. The film feels respectably balanced between light hearted storytelling and heavy racial politics. It never sacrifices one for the other.

As well as being intricately scripted, Hidden Figures is also filled to the brim with first rate performances: Hensen is uniformly terrific and adds depth to a subplot that occasionally feels like filler (her romance with Mahershala Ali's Jim Johnson never really flourishes, but Hensen does her damnedest to make it work); Monáe is a persistently enjoyable presence on screen and handles her diverse material well, ranging from cracking one liners to some more thoughtful work in her college evening classes; finally, Spencer may not do enough do quite justify her Oscar nomination, but she delivers a likeable and forceful performance that works best in her quieter moments.

Hidden Figures is on top form for most of its first two acts, so it was inevitable that act three would stumble a bit. The climactic sequence of Katherine rushing to double check the figures mere moments before the rocket launch suffers from a complete lack of narrative tension. The film's light hearted tone, which was so effective early on, actually works against it in the resolution - it's been such a feel good film thus far that you in no way believe it will end on a sour note. It isn't massively damaging to the film it just results in a slight loss of both narrative and thematic tension because it doesn't work hard enough to make us feel like anything could really go wrong.

Even if this last act does stumble though, when Hidden Figures is on form, it soars. It succeeds in crafting genuine emotion out of its characters and their story, it never feels cheap or resorts to big moments. Bar one moment in which Hensen is really allowed to let loose, the racism fuelled conversations are quiet and thoughtful rather than loud and forceful. It feels more natural, and results in a deeply moving film. It probably won't make you cry, but you'll feel all warm and moved inside.

Hidden Figures is just generally a fun, enjoyable film that tackles its heavier subject matter with dignity and respect. It's the kind of history lesson that works best on screen, with layered characters and brilliant performances to rope us in and take us on this journey. The true story it focuses on is undeniably powerful, but the film itself works to recapture the feelings and hardships of the era, meaning it never just coasts by and relies on its story to do the work. It's a thoughtful and well crafted film in its own right, and that's what matters.

In A Sentence

Making the most out of its talented cast and powerful true story, Hidden Figures is an engaging and ultimately moving history lesson on a story pushed beneath the surface.

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