Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Hidden Figures

Alternate Title:  This Week, on a Very Special Episode of...

One sentence synopsis:  Three female black mathematicians at NASA confront prejudice and open discrimination as they work on the Friendship 7 program to send the first Astronaut into orbit.

Things Havoc liked:  Following the embarrassing racial flub that was the 2015 Lily-white Oscars, the Academy, in their wisdom, seems to have decided that the hashtag for their Oscars this year should be "#OscarsSoBlack", giving out assorted nods to films like Moonlight (unseen by me), Fences (deserving at least in the acting categories), and the film we have before us today, the historical NASA/timely tolerance feature Hidden Figures. Yes, this movie, like the one from last week, did technically come out somewhere in 2016, but I do not base my film calendar around such technicalities. It entered wide release in 2017, and a part of 2017 it consequently is. So here we are.

1961. Langley, Virginia. The newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been in existence for three years, and spent all three of them getting embarrassingly lapped by their Soviet counterparts, who have succeeded in putting a satellite, then a dog, and then finally a human being in space, and returning the last one to the Earth. In their efforts to catch up to the Soviets and surpass them by being the first to place a man in orbit (not just grazing the outer atmosphere for a moment), NASA employs teams of computers, which at this time are not machines but job descriptions, men and women of tremendous mathematical gifts who perform the mind-shatteringly complex calculations necessary to launch anything into space, let alone to get it back again in one piece. Among these staggering mathematicians are a group of black women struggling under the prevailing racial attitudes of 1960s Virginia, and American society at large. Among this group are Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) a prodigal mathematician and astrophysicist, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a pioneering computer programmer, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a technician-turned-aeronautics-and-space-engineer, and it is about these three women, and their attempts to, each in their own way, deal with the prejudices blocking their success, that the movie concerns itself with.

Leaving Goble aside for a moment, the other two women are played extremely well, particularly Vaughan, who gets the most nuanced and interesting storyline. Stuck with the responsibilities of a supervisor at NASA, but neither the pay nor the title, and confronted with the reality that mechanical computers will soon be replacing human ones, Vaughan dodges the thinly-veiled racism of her own boss (played by Kirsten Dunst of all people), and trains herself and her staff on the operation of IBM 7090 mainframes, all while teaching herself FORTRAN (God help her). A cutting remark, late in the film, following this tremendous effort that she is absolutely sure that Dunst believes (wrongly) that she has nothing against black people is as sharply-written as anything else in the rest of the film, and Octavia Spencer herself is plainly the best actor of the bunch. Other plaudits go to Kevin Costner, whom I have never managed to hate as much as I probably should, who takes on yet another all-American role as Space Task Group director Al Harrison, a man obsessed with besting the Russians in the Space Race. Costner is good at few things, but one of them is everyman charm, and he brings a lot of it to this role as he stoically trudges on with his efforts to get the project moving whatever the cost (it's not as bad as it sounds)

Things Havoc disliked:  I'm sure you can all guess why I chose to leave Goble aside a moment ago.

Goble, the main character among the three women at the heart of this case, is played by actress Taraji P. Henson, who has been in a great many other films and television shows, though none that I have previously watched. Based on her performance in this movie, I'm not about to start. Henson plays the character like a wilting violet, lacking all self-confidence and inclination to raise hell, which is fine in a general sense, but not when the character is going to be called upon to deliver a series of loud, aggressive speeches about the discrimination that she has been subjected to. There is a way, hell there are several ways that a character like this could have been naturally brought to the point where they would make such speeches, but just dropping one on a character not established to have enough wherewithal to speak above a mousy whisper is not one of those ways, and just turns the movie into a set of disjointed scenes fit awkwardly into place around disconnected lesson moments. The same problem afflicts Janelle Monáe, a much better actress with a much meatier role, who nevertheless, in the climax of her own plot arc, has to stop dead in her tracks to deliver a completely artificial speech about tolerance and justice, one that sounds like it was taken straight out of a fourth-grade essay on the subject of why we shouldn't be racist. Obviously I have nothing against the sentiment, but the message in question is hammered home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, resulting in a movie that feels less like a story of people that existed (which it is), and more like an after school special from the Lifetime channel, complete with dramatic, swelling music whenever it's time for someone to give their contractually-mandated speech about tolerance, and the big-damn-hero moment for our leading old white man character, as he demolishes a colored bathroom sign with a sledgehammer, in one of the least-subtle metaphors that Kevin Costner has ever engaged in. Think about that.

And unfortunately, if we try to turn aside from the message work here, there's just nothing else to the movie. 2016 omnipresent star Mahershala Ali has a completely pointless role as the love interest for our main character, one that doesn't emerge from behind that description, I'm afraid. Jim Parsons, meanwhile, of The Big Bang Theory, gets to play the obligatory role of the needlessly dickish racist asshole, something complicated by the fact that Parsons cannot act at all beyond his role in the aforementioned show, and comes across, consequentially, less like a figure of prejudice, and more like an oblivious douchebag who spends the entire movie being periodically astounded and amazed by the fascinating revelation that a woman, and a black woman no less, can perform mathematics! I wouldn't mind if he had expressed surprise once, but after the seventeenth time when Parson's character is astounded to discover that the black woman he disdains has managed to perform a complex calculation, it makes me think less of the crushing hand of institutional racism, and more than Parson is something of an imbecile who needs to be removed immediately from NASA before he accidentally impales himself with a protractor.

Final thoughts:   I could go on, of course, arguing about the fact that the movie gets its facts entirely screwy. NASA was, in reality, a fully integrated shop by executive decree from its inception in 1958, and women were in senior engineering positions, and authoring scientific papers at the organization by 1960, three years after this film is supposed to be taking place. I will not, however, complain about this, because these alterations to history were made in the interests of telling a compelling story, and represent one of the only concessions to doing so to be found throughout Hidden Figures. Admirable though the purposes of the movie may be, seeking to shine light on a subject relatively unknown to the public at large, the execution of the movie is almost entirely flat, pitched at the level of a classroom special for nine-year olds.

That said, it's worth noting that both of the people that I saw this movie with loved it, as did the audience at large, who gave it an ovation when the movie ended. Judging from the reaction the film has gotten, commercially and critically, it may simply be that I'm missing something here. Still, I have to call these films as I see them, or else there isn't much point to the entire project. And while the impetus behind Hidden Figures may be laudable, the movie that I was given to watch as a result of that impulse fails, comprehensively, to launch.


... I regret nothing.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  Spiderman and Kylo Ren go to Japan.

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