We’re still in the midst of Oscar season, when some major heavy-hitters go into “wide release,” meaning they’re finally available everywhere. This weekend, we got the inspirational true story Hidden Figures, but does it have what it takes to compete with the other Oscar contenders?
We follow three women who work at NASA in 1961, competing against the Russians to send a man into space. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician, who gets called up to assist the head honcho (Kevin Costner) to figure out the exact numbers. We also follow Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) who is on a quest to become a supervisor though is repeatedly hitting road blocks, usually put there by a seemingly malicious rival (Kirsten Dunst). Lastly, we follow Mary (Janelle Monae) who wants to become an engineer but must first go through some education loopholes to meet the requirements. All of this is happening at a time when black women weren’t allowed to do a lot of these things, so it’s a story of struggle and celebration.
We also have Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory), Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, and Glen Powell.
It’s hard to make true stories like this movie really surprise you, if you know anything about the real story. It’s hard to include suspense and intrigue when the ending is already known. Hidden Figures does the smart thing though and places the suspense on our lead characters as opposed to the central story. I didn’t know what happened to them so it kept me intrigued.
And the reason I cared so much was because of some absolutely incredible performances by our three lead women. Both Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer deliver predictably great performances, while Janelle Monae proved to us in Moonlight that she can act as well. They’re strong, they’re witty, they’re charming… These women just delivered deep performances that had our audience applauding, on many occasions. Henson carried the cast with the most substantial story arc and she was perfect.
This movie also manages a really fine balance, managing to showcase both the horrific reality of the time yet also managing to provide tons of laughs and levity. The music is catchy and poppy, all of our leads have a sharp wit, and the movie is vibrant and colorful. Yet in the end, the messages regarding how far we have (or haven’t) come is still really poignant.
While this genre is usually pretty predictable, this movie does it well. Its pacing is great, it delivers both laughs and goosebumps, and showcases some stellar performances.
What doesn’t work?
My only complaint is about this genre of true story inspirational films as a whole, that they happen so frequently that movies like this can feel fairly predictable, like a “cookie cutter” image of what this movie should be like. That can mean this movie might have a lot of similar beats and moments that you’ll have seen before. Grouchy white man becomes ally, stuck-up racist gets put in their place, you’ll see these things coming from a mile away. The journey there, though, is a really fun and enjoyable one.
Hidden Figures tells an intriguing story, both zoomed out at how the United States and Russia fought for the stars, and also zoomed in on three incredibly fascinating women in history. There are great performances all around, most notably by Taraji P. Henson who carried most of the film. It delivers some standout moments of celebration, which will likely illicit applause from the crowd, and plenty of laughs and toe-tapping songs. It is able to balance a story of struggle and celebration perfectly, meaning most of you should have a really excellent time with this one.