"Hidden Figures" Spoiled By Sluggish Pacing, Hasty Feel-Good-Isms

Never underestimate the moviegoing public’s preference for what a film is about over how it’s about it. Historical drama “Hidden Figures” (based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) knows this all too well, that a “based on a true story” title card can essentially make a movie infallible in the eyes of many. Indeed, the real-life characters at the heart of “Hidden Figures” are special. So are the actresses playing them. The leads are so compelling that the unimaginative, mildly condescending movie around them occasionally fades away, hinting at the mighty civil rights docudrama that might have been.

But, no. Theodore Melfi’s film ultimately refuses the lead of its three brave subjects, three women who put their livelihoods on the line for black American women past, present, and future. Instead the “St. Vincent” writer-director trudges on down the path of least resistance, painting an all too orderly portrait of a struggle that was anything but.

1962, Jim Crow era America. Mathematicians Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janell Monáe) toil away in a segregated computing office in NASA’s Hampton, Virginia field center. Their workspace, marked “Colored Computers,” sits in a dingy basement a half-mile away from where Space Task Group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is tearing his remaining hair out over the Soviets’ progress in the space race. Sputnik is history, and now the real test looms: putting a living, breathing human being into orbit. The mission that would be Friendship 7.

Desperate for better, faster number crunching, Harrison enlists prejudiced supervisor Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) to bring Katherine Goble in. Harrison’s pasty underlings are appalled by the black woman in their midst, bristling when she dares drink from their coffee pot. They have nothing to say, of course, when she excels at her job, even with having no choice but to run a mile round trip just to use the bathroom and being a widowed mother to three young girls.

Mary faces similar obstacles in her attempts to obtain an engineering degree (the only classes she’s able to attend are at an all-white school) and no one notices that Dorothy is a genius when it comes to learning the field center’s new International Business Machine – the same machine baffling a whole host of white male employees. Henson, Spencer, and Monáe pulse with intelligence and optimism even as the film disconnects them from each other for long stretches. The trio shares a wonderful rapport in an early scene featuring a roadside breakdown, a camaraderie that inexplicably never returns.

It’s this same disconnection that permeates the entire film. Supporting characters like bigoted head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and kooky mission specialist Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) come and go without rhyme or reason. 28-year-old actor Glenn Powell who was so good in Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” makes for a disastrous John Glenn; his mugging for the camera presumably a bid to hide the fact that he bears no resemblance to his 40-year-old character. And Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) is misspent as Jim Johnson, Katherine’s love interest and future husband. All of these supporting characters without anything to do is mean feat for a movie that runs a healthy two hours and seven minutes.

It’s tempting to blame the movie’s shortcomings on math and the difficulty in making math exciting on film. The math isn’t exciting, but Henson, Spencer, and Monáe are more than good enough to make it feel like it is. No, the film’s ultimate failing is that it treats their characters as feel-good cogs instead of the trailblazers they were. It’s so caught up in billboard-esque encouragement that it presents its point, “Black women can be smart, too,” matter-of-factly instead of defiantly. The correct presentation, “Of course black women can be smart and powerful, you idiots,” wouldn’t have struck the movie’s crowd-pleasing target, so it was abandoned.

Modern touches like a loud, distracting soundtrack from Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer only go so far in concealing the project’s staleness. A tacked-on prologue hits with a musty bouquet right out of the gate; a conventional visual style does nothing to assuage the feeling. And reducing civil rights issues to white actors delivering bad dialogue like “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color!” doesn’t exactly help the film to be the forward-thinking testimonial it thinks it is.

After all, Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson took huge chances. Their movie takes none. It sees fit to ride the coattails of some stirring nonfiction and three excellent actresses, betting that audiences will conflate true life with good storytelling. Based on early box office receipts, moviegoers have done exactly that, getting caught up in an airy, non-confrontational account of an especially troubling era in American history. With some audacity and ingenuity, “Hidden Figures” might have been something extraordinary. Instead, it’s merely about something extraordinary.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 25, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenwriter: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell, Olek Krupa
MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some language)