Bethlehem Press

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Review: ‘Hidden Figures’

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 by PAUL WILLISTEIN pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

“Hidden Figures,” as with a few of 2016’s outstanding films (“Loving,” “Jackie” and “The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years”), takes place roughly more than half a century ago, in the early 1960s, which seems to have been a more innocent time in the United States.

And, yet, as the fascinating, exciting and semi-tragic “Hidden Figures” carefully underscores, it was a time far from perfect and quite flawed once the media curtain is lifted. This, “Hidden Figures,” sparked by fine performances, a solid screenplay and evocative cinematography, does without scorn or an accusatory tone and does it well.

Taraji P. Henson (TV’s “Person of Interest,” 2011-15), in a deserved Oscar lead actress nominee role, portrays Katherine G. Johnson, a math whiz who lands a job in the West Area Computers division of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va. Johnson is credited with calculating flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions.

Johnson’s colleagues include Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who supervises African-American female employees known as “computers,” in that they compute numbers, at Langley, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who wants to become an engineer.

With the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik and its orbiting technology (“Russians are watching us right now,” it’s stated), the “space race” intensifies. President Kennedy and others pressure Al Harrison (excellent Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Force, to get an American astronaut into space.

Johnson, then Goble prior to her marriage, is assigned to assist Harrison’s team. She reports to head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” 2006-17, in full-nerd umbrage). Vaughan is overseen by Vivian (a fine Kirsten Dunst).

The screenplay by the film’s director Theodore Melfi (in his theatrical movie directorial debut; screenplay, “St. Vincent,” 2014), and Allison Schroeder (in her theatrical movie screenplay debut; screenplay, “Mean Girls 2” TV movie, 2011), based on the nonfiction book, “Hidden Figures” by Margo Lee Shetterly, deftly juggles the big issues (the space race) with the details (racial relations) and the introduction of an IBM computer (this one takes up an entire room).

At the time, even though it was during the Civil Rights Movement, Virginia was still segregated, with “white-only” schools, and “Colored Bathrooms” and even, at Langley, a “colored” coffee-maker. The drama is heightened by the launch of Friendship 7, with John Glenn, managing three of seven orbits. Johnson is depicted as pivotal in the successful return of the space capsule (descending like a fireball at about 17,847 mph). The dialogue interjects just enough jargon (“Euclidian coordinates”).

Visual symbolism is used in the chalk that Katherine G. Johnson uses on the blackboard as a child in school, the calculations she jots down on the blackboard at Langley and the chalk’s shape, similar to that of the Redstone rocket that launched U.S. space capsules.

The art direction, set design and costuming is impeccable. You feel as though you’ve been launched in a time capsule back to the dawn of the space age. It’s still a dawning, thanks to the courageous contributions of the “Hidden Figures,” an uplifting film that can be enjoyed by the entire family. “Hidden Figures” is more than A-OK.

“Hidden Figures,”MPAA rated PG (Parental Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children.) for thematic elements and some language; Genre: Biography, Drama, History; Run time: 2 hrs., 7 mins.; Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous:The “Hidden Figures” soundtrack includes several songs written and sung by Pharrell Williams, one of the film’s producers.

Box Office,Jan. 20: Director M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” opened at No. 1 with $40.1 million, sending Vin Diesel packing with “xXx: Return of Xander Cage,” opening at No. 2, with only $20 million, and pushing “Hidden Figures” to No. 3, after two weeks at No. 1, with $16.2 million, $84.2 million, five weeks; 4. “Sing,” $9 million, $249.3 million, five weeks; 5. “La La Land,” $8.3 million, $89.6 million, seven weeks; 6. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” $7 million, $512.2 million, six weeks; 7. “Monster Trucks,” $7 million, $22.6 million, two weeks; 8. “Patriots Day,” $6 million, $23.6 million, five weeks; 9. “The Founder,” $3.7 million, opening; 10. “Sleepless,” $3.7 million, $15.1 million, two weeks.

Unreel,Jan. 27:“Resident Evil: The Final Chapter,”R: Paul W.S. Anderson directs Ruby Rose, Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter and Iain Glen in the science-fiction film about Alice’s return to The Hive in Raccoon City, where the Umbrella Corporation plans to strike against survivors of the apocalypse.

“Gold,”R: ” Stephen Gaghan directs Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard and Toby Kebbell in the thriller about the search for gold in an Indonesian jungle.