I don’t see many movies in crowded theaters these days, typically attending late night shows, press screenings or watching advance prints from the comfort of my couch. But our recent spate of inclement weather led to theater closures and impassable roads that resulted in my having to catch a nearly sold out matinee of Hidden Figures very close to my deadline, so I had to sit between two strangers in a movie theater for the first time in years. The reason I mention all of this is because, in the modern age of streaming media, it can be all too easy to forget what a powerful effect a receptive audience can have on the moviegoing experience. I can’t say for sure, but there’s a distinct possibility that I enjoyed Hidden Figures about thirty percent more than I would have had I viewed it at home or in a screening room populated exclusively by my fellow critics.
The response of the crowd was overwhelmingly positive, and not without good reason, as Figures is distinguished by solid performances, a strong script and an uplifting story. It’s not without its flaws as a piece of filmmaking, but as a heartwarming rendition of an uplifting true story the film pulls off its heartstring tugging with admirable efficiency. Though it can come across as contrived pandering at times, this is an uncomplicated film with an important message and a richly deserved happy ending.
Based on an unfortunately overlooked chapter in the 1960s space race, Figures chronicles the struggles of three African-American women working for NASA in segregated Virginia. As such, the film touches on issues of institutional sexism and racism while never examining these societal ills too deeply. Director and co-writer Theodore Melfi is found distinctly lacking when he takes a stab at visual stylization, but he plays things prudently safe in the story department. By glossing over much of the ugliness inherent to the truth behind the story he’s presenting while bolstering the proceedings with a large dose of comedy, he manages to deliver a film that’s lightly likable without indulging in heavy-handed moralizing.
The primary reason all of this works is the film’s exemplary cast, without whose talents the proceedings would almost certainly have devolved into saccharine sermonizing. Our central protagonists are three young women with prodigious mathematical talents struggling to advance in a world dominated by white males; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) has aspirations of becoming NASA’s first female engineer, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is doing the work of a supervisor without adequate recognition or compensation and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is one of the most gifted mathematical minds in the organization, capable of great contributions to our country’s efforts to put a man in space if only people would stop mistaking her for the janitor. While their performances are occasionally on the broad side, these three highly capable actresses acquit themselves admirably and clearly have a vested interest in the characters they’re portraying.
One of the narrative masterstrokes of the film is its structural capacity to shift between Johnson’s A-plot and the concurrent B-threads of Jackson and Vaughn, breaking up a ponderously paced second act that would have felt interminable without the added complexity of these peripheral character arcs. Henson, Spencer and Monáe have an easy rapport that carries interest when the story falters, and an exceptional supporting cast including Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali and Jim Parsons (playing slightly against type) yield just enough context to keep the film from becoming tediously pat.
Hidden Figures is the very definition of inoffensive filmmaking, recounting a true story that everybody can get behind while never delving into the reality of that story deeply enough to make anybody uncomfortable. The cynic in me most likely would have applauded this film’s message while eviscerating its cinematic shortcomings had it not been for that audience, whose open appreciation for the film on its most superficial merits subverted my capacity for more scathing critical analysis. I’m not too proud to admit that I got swept up along with them, and the odds are good that even the most stone-hearted viewer will find it difficult not to do the same. True, it’s not the most complex or accomplished film I’ve ever seen, but not everything has to be high art. Hidden Figures is a film about courageous women that reached for the stars, but as cinema it keeps its feet firmly on the ground — and I doubt anyone will complain about the results. Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher, Epic of Hendersonville.