108. Hidden Figures

If the attendance at the screening I just attended is an accurate representation of the country as a whole, Hidden Figures is poised to be a big hit.  Directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), the film adapts the true story of three African-American women (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe) who are hired by NASA to help pioneer America’s space program.  Facing the daunting task of crashing through not one but two glass ceilings, the women persevere, defy expectations, and make history along the way.

There are a number of motivational films about breaking down barriers that are sitting in cinemas, right now, and that’s not a bad thing.  The world needs it, at the moment, and Hidden Figures makes decent company for the others.  However, I can’t help but feel that it falls short of its potential in execution, even as it excels in other areas.

The cast is exceptionally strong as, joining the three lead women, we have Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and the up-and-coming Mahershala Ali, who I’ve already raved about, recently.  Costner and Dunst are firmly established in the industry, but Ali is such a great talent, as well.  He doesn’t get to flex his muscles in this film as he did in Marvel’s “Luke Cage” and Moonlight, but it’s encouraging to see him in another high-profile role and I hope it leads to plenty more for him.

That’s kind of the story in general in Hidden Figures, though; most of the cast gets to stroll through the film without really pushing themselves.  As Katherine – the most prominently featured of the three lead women – Henson gets one memorably strong scene and nails it beautifully.  The feeling behind her words is palpable and its the water-cooler moment of the film.  Outside of that, there’s a smaller moment here and there (Spencer gets the best line . . . an “ooooooh”-worthy dig aimed at Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell) but the film feels very paint-by-numbers as far as the writing is concerned.  It’s almost as if Melfi and his creative team wanted to allow the story to carry the audience through without worrying about how to actually deliver said story.  The film simply shows what happens and it usually does so in the least imaginative ways it can muster.

The big moments are clearly big for the characters but – aside from Henson’s speech – they don’t feel big for the audience.  It’s the exact opposite of what I was talking about in my Lion post.  In that film, the audience lives vicariously through the characters, experiencing what they experience and feeling it alongside them.  In Hidden Figures, we’re just casual observers, watching the events play out but never feeling like active participants.

Almost the entire movie plays it safe.  The dialogue is fine, but unremarkable.  It’s strong enough to hold the attention of the audience but, with two or three exceptions, unmemorable.  The humor is Walmart humor: meant for mass consumption.  Nothing is funny as a result of being particularly witty or clever.  There’s barely a bit of wit to be found.  Instead, when a moment is supposed to be light or humorous, the cast is relied upon to “act” funny through their delivery and/or body language.  I give them all the credit in the world for making the best of it, but it’s the laziest form of humor there is.

The film reminds me quite a bit of The Blind Side.  That film, too, was an adaptation of a touching and powerful true story that fell flat due to lackluster execution.  Hidden Figures is better than that film, by quite a margin.  It’s competently told, without question.  It just under-delivers.  And it will get a free pass from most because of its uplifting subject matter.  But it’s not the subject matter that’s at fault; it’s the delivery of it.

What this all boils down to is that Hidden Figures is a good film that should be a great film.  The dialogue should dazzle.  Moments that come across as nice should instead be monumental.  If it seems like I’m being hard on the film, it’s only because I can see what it could have been, with just a little bit of tweaking.  As it stands, the film will do well.  People will love it.  And they’ll say it’s much better than it actually is.  I just wish that a movie about such a then (and maybe even now, in some circles)-provocative topic and situation felt a little more challenging than it does and projected fire like a flame-thrower, rather than smoke like a cap gun.

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