Hidden Figures (2016)
Think of the safest film ever made about black women in the civil rights era. Now make it safer. No, safer. Wrap it in bubble wrap, throw it in a “Bubble Boy” bubble and bury it 50 feet underground just to make sure it won't rub anyone the wrong way.
Oh, and while you’re at it, go ahead and cast Jim Parsons as the only real “antagonist,” — you know, the “Bazinga” guy — so everyone can get on board with hating on him.
Clinging to safety, which “Hidden Figures” does in spades, doesn’t make it a bad film, but it keeps it from ever becoming a great one. The leads are spectacular, particularly Janelle Monae who has a bright future in acting. Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer do well with their roles and against their relatively bristly white counterparts in the very-much segregated NASA but it all feels tame.
Beyond what we know about the 1960s from history books, and I’ll allow a chuckle because of what those left out, there have been too many movies about this time period for this one to get away with its Wonderbread portrayal of the time period. Yes, there’s a news clip of a bus burning and kids are kicked out of a white library, but the film’s tone is so damn light that there are more jokes about riding in the back of a bus than complaints.
I won’t singlehandedly chalk that up to a white director and two white writers (one of whom is the director), but it can’t have helped matters. Someone decided “Hidden Figures” needed to be the feel-good story of three women who helped send John Glenn into orbit with a healthy polish dripped on top. That’s disappointing and a disservice to the real-life heroes portrayed in the film.
The film also makes an effort to drag Henson’s struggle to juggle her personal life with her work life because did you know she’s a woman with a job? We’re spared this same tedious storyline with the other two leads, but all you need to know about the film is that in her epilogue card it tacks on the phrase “and celebrated 56 years of marriage to Jim Johnson” after noting she had a building named after her.
“Hidden Figures” can at least boast it’s never dull. A movie based on three mathematicians is fighting the current in that regard and explains why the filmmakers decided to go with a more popcorn-chewing vibe. “Figures” could have relied on the performances from Monae, Henson and Spencer, who are all splendid when together, and told a hard-truth type story while getting the Oscar buzz it rightly deserves.
Instead another important story gets a slick Hollywood coating and is sent into theaters. “Hidden Figures” isn’t a bad movie, but it lacks the courage to ever become a great one.