Sunday, 26 February 2017

Hidden Figures (2017) - Movie Review

One of the relatively smaller drawbacks of the Oscar season is that you end up finding certain releases that make a little too much sense in terms of why they were made. Between how space exploration has been framed as an example of where and why humanity should unite under a common cause, and anything involving racial prejudices makes for easy Oscar bait, it’s no wonder that this film exists. Of course, it’s not like I’m not complaining about this; we’re just reaching the end of February and I’ve already seen a handful of films that have pretty much no reason to exist. Films with rather obvious intents aren’t inherently bad things, so long as the people behind them can make those intents ring true in the work proper. So, with all that said, which side of the Oscar bait line does this land in?

The plot: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are three African-American women who are brought into NASA to assist with the mathematics and engineering behind their attempts to send a man into space, at a time when competition from the Soviets was making everyone tense. As they try to navigate through the racist and sexist attitudes of the time, applying their respective expertise, they continue on their way to becoming three of the greatest contributors to the U.S. arm of the space race.

The cast here must be doing something right because characterisation this basic shouldn’t sound this appealing. Spencer brings a lot of soulful drive to her role, Monáe is fiery and sassy as hell and while Henson seems to think that acting meek just means letting her spectacles do the acting for her, she seriously delivers when she’s given a monologue to perform like her epic dress-down speech in front of her co-workers. As for the supporting cast, Kevin Costner as the director of the Space Task Group exists as the plot needs him, much like his character (which, for the record, is less white saviour and more just simplified characterisation; better a single white higher-up than rotating in several of them for the sake of plot).

Kristen Dunst is okay, same with Mahershala Ali, Olek Krupa and Glen Powell, all of whom exist in their own realms of simplification but without being grating in the process. And then there’s Jim Parsons and, after the fiasco involving Home, he has thankfully been cast as yet another irredeemable asshole, but we are absolutely not meant to agree with him for even a second. I highly approve.

If I’m being honest, the main reason I was looking forward to this one was because Pharrell’s name was attached to it as a composer. After his work on films like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and of course the Despicable Me series, he’s maintained a decent track record so far. Of course, his best work in recent years has strictly been with film soundtracks, not so much with his pop hits like the good ol’ days, and while this isn’t really an exception to that, it’s mostly just okay. Don’t get me wrong, he brings plenty of Virginia funk and soul to the proceedings and I especially like the use of Runnin’ as Katherine’s character theme, but his singing still leaves something to be desired here. A lot of that laidback smoothness that made for his best vocal features isn’t found here, replaced with a more strained and panicky delivery, which ends up souring more than a few of the pretty decent instrumentals he cooks up. Honestly, at least in terms of consistency, I dug Hans Zimmer’s contributions a lot more. Yeah, it’s basic orchestral fare but at least it doesn’t have off vocals to set them back.

We’re dealing with a PG-rated depiction of early 60’s-era racial tensions, and it’s about as sanitized as it sounds. Those who are racist are unrepentant, and even those who aren’t are constantly under suspicion. I’d love to hear the directions given to the numerous extras who have to act aghast at pretty much everything our female leads do throughout the film; it’s kind of funny to watch in a rather depressing way. That said, this makes slightly more sense once it sinks in that the more prominent white characters (outside of John Glenn) are fictional composites all meant to drive home specific themes and prejudices. Not only that, this film can get especially cheesy with how it depicts its own anti-prejudicial stance (insert Kim Burrell joke here) as the speechifying can get rather silly. It also has a touch of Oliver Stone syndrome where it feels like specific lines have been isolated to become their own T-shirt slogans, making the hammer bashes even more obvious.

That said, even considering the rather problematic intent behind these decisions as worded by director/co-writer Theodore Melfi (“… who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?”), credit where it’s due in how he handles the prejudicial themes overall. It puts emphasis on the racism at work, with some decent lip service to the Civil Rights movements of the time, but it also keeps the main characters’ status as women in the spotlight as well. While I’m sure that certain people, otherwise known as ))<shitheads>((, will see this as a political correctness free-for-all, it shows that the film isn’t trying to fixate on any one specific aspect in regards to why this journey is as difficult for our protagonists as it is. These women, historically, had a lot to prove to the white majority and, through their triumphs and moments of “I sure told them”, it creates a nice through-line to carry that pathos.

All in all, while incredibly cheesy and a little too watered-down to really let the inspirational story shine through, this is still a rather effective bit of disposable Oscar drama. The performances are solid, if frequently one-note, the music is rather underwhelming but not to any egregious level and the writing works with its rather simple approach to the material to make for a breezy viewing experience. Also, special mention is deserved for a scene between Spencer and Dunst using mirrors and a deliciously cold put-down, probably the main thing I’ll remember about this film a few months from now.

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