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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Friday, February 24, 2017

Movie Review - Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (2016)
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Mahershala Ali
Directed by Theodore Melfi

There's something so refreshing about the simplicity and basic nature of Hidden Figures and its engagingly pleasant and uplifting story that it's awfully tough not to enjoy director Theodore Melfi's film as it jauntily prances across the movie screen.  The great trio of black actresses at the film's center -- Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe -- do a fantastic job of sugarcoating the fact that the film's screenplay is riddled with one-note white supporting characters and its direction is full of clichés.  However, despite the lack of edginess and its rather elementary (and rudimentary at times) treatment of race relations in the 1960s, Hidden Figures is immensely enjoyable and held my attention as the true story of the three fascinating lead characters unfolded.

Hidden Figures succeeds not because it's got great direction or plot, but because it's a mainstream Hollywood film that capably tells an unknown true story headlined by three charismatic lead actresses.  At the forefront is Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Goble, a rather genius mathematician who worked for NASA at the Langley Research Center in Virginia.  After working in the segregated computer lab, Goble is called up to help the head of the Space Task Group Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) as his team attempts to launch an American into space.  Henson's Goble is an extremely intelligent woman, but she's also a caring mother to her three daughters who faces all the challenges thrown at her with perseverance ever after losing her husband a few years ago.  Henson is captivating at the center of the film, balancing heart and humor with ease.

Perhaps the bulk of the film's humor (and this is a surprisingly funny piece at times) is supplied by Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, the requisite sassy gal who longs to get her Masters in Engineering but isn't allowed because of Virginia's segregation laws.  While not known for acting, Monáe has proven to be an intriguing newcomer in the field with her work here and in 2016's Moonlight.  She has a presence onscreen that emits strength and grace and she's someone I'm certainly going to pay attention to in the years to come.

The only actress Oscar-nominated for her role here is Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughn, the supervisor of the "colored" computer room.  Spencer is essentially playing the same role here that she played in her Oscar-winning turn in The Help, but she's admittedly good in that no-nonsense type role.  Here, Spencer takes on the motherly role with ease, but I honestly think she's the least impressive of the acting trio -- not saying that in a derogatory way, just in the fact that her role seems the most generic.

The three actresses make this film shine.  Unfortunately, some of what goes on around them proves disappointing.  Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are given rote, been-there-seen-that roles as 1960s white folk seemingly opposed to integration only to have their eyes opened up when they see what other groups have to offer.  Their evil side-eyes and brusque mannerisms are so utterly stereotypical that it sometimes proves laughable as opposed to impactful which is a shame because I'm sure that these three real-life ladies faced some true opposition to their emergence in NASA.  Kevin Costner bucks the trend as Goble's superior, but it's a bit too little to help.

Director Theodore Melfi doesn't reinvent the wheel here in any way, but in the end, that's okay.  Hidden Figures was meant to be a crowd-pleaser, not a deeply innovative piece.  In that sense, it's entirely successful.  In the end, though, it lacks the gravitas or uniqueness to really make a cinematic impact, but the story of the three ladies at its center is certainly a worthwhile historical footnote to learn about.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

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