This is Part Seven of my 2017 Oscar Watch where I watch all of the Best Picture nominees in the weeks running up to the Academy Awards. For other entries, click here:
- “Hell or High Water”
- “Manchester by the Sea”
- “La La Land”
- “Hacksaw Ridge”
- “Hidden Figures”
For all of my 2017 Academy Awards picks, click here.
“Hidden Figures” is the most traditional film of all nine Best Picture Nominees. However, it is an excellent film despite a few minor missteps. Nearly all of the elements at play, from the writing to directing are exceptional, but the music leaves a lot to be desired.
The story of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson as the brilliant minds that enabled NASA to put a man in space is probably new to many people. In fact, it is difficult to accept that it took over 40 years for this inspiring true story to be captured on film. The accomplishments of these African American women seem to have been ignored by history, but “Hidden Figures” is a stunning ode to their accomplishments.
Higher and Higher
The three lead actresses are undeniably captivating from the moment they appear on screen. Taraji P. Henson, as Katherine Goble Johnson, provides all of her acting prowess to this strong, rational character. There are some moments that provide Henson the opportunity to flex her dramatic range, but she is mostly an endearing, silent, and brilliant character. Set in the 1960s, Katherine is a “colored computer,” a black woman who is tasked with checking the math of the white, male NASA engineers. Eventually, Katherine’s intelligence and intuition make her an integral and oppressed member of the exclusive group—Katherine’s awkward interaction with the white men is disturbing, but further humanizes the character.
At the other end of the character spectrum, Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a sassy, smart woman who will stop at nothing to become NASA’s first black and first female engineer. In fact, Monáe was my favorite part of the entire film. While the film tries too hard to modernize its story by interspersing jarring, modern music, Monáe is the most modern character of all and truly embodies the strength that women could have only hoped to achieve in the 1960s.
Rounding out the trio, Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughn, the manager of the “colored computers,” who vies to become a supervisor by leveraging her strong mechanical knowledge. Spencer plays the motherly yet playful character that brings heart and strength to the three central characters. For some reason, Spencer is the only nominated actor from this film—I believe that Monáe’s Mary Jackson is much more interesting, but Spencer is certainly no slouch.
In addition, Kevin Costner is great as Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group where Katherine works. He is never given much to chew on dramatically, but he is a kind, strong man that will stop at nothing to beat Russia to the final frontier—this includes breaking with the prejudiced ideologies that America accepted in the 60s.
Also, Mahershala Ali is once again fantastic as Jim Johnson, Katherine’s love interest. It is worth noting that both Janelle Monáe and Ali are in “Hidden Figures” as well as “Moonlight.” Clearly their careers are starting to take off and this film is yet another proof of their strong ability.
My Ears are Bleeding
Criticizing anything about “Hidden Figures” is difficult because it is composed exceptionally well. The nearest comparison I can think of is 2014’s “The Imitation Game”—an incredible biographical film about an oppressed, intelligent person who forever changes their field. The plot, writing, cinematography, and directing in “Hidden Figures” seems entirely lifted from “The Imitation Game,” but the original music in “Hidden Figures” is borderline awful.
While the film does try to utilize actual music from the 1960s, it occasionally uses original music from Pharrell Williams that immediately draws the viewer out of the time and place. Also, the music literally discusses what is happening on screen in an odd and unsatisfying way. The music is ok, but it is a misguided attempt at capturing the attention of a younger audience. I believe that without this terribly placed music, “Hidden Figures” would have been considered a true contender for Best Picture—instead it has been relegated to an afterthought.
Almost Shooting Stars
“Hidden Figures” is a moving true story that shows great respect for its subjects and story, but its original music is horrendous enough to keep it from being out of this world.