Hidden Figures ****
Dir: Theodore Melfi.
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons.
Hidden Figures is in many ways a standard Hollywood tale of the little guy (or gals in this instance) who triumphs in the face of great adversity. But this particular true-life tale is such a powerful one when placed in its proper historical context that it would take a director of monumental incompetence to screw up. Luckily, Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) isn’t such a film-maker. Directing from his own script (with Allison Schroeder) adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Melfi wisely stays out of the way of his powerful story and lets it – and his terrific cast – work its magic. There are a few typical showy “pure Hollywood” moments which don’t exactly ring true (even if they may have actually happened) but luckily the story and the history lesson is too strong and too significant to be derailed so easily.
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Morae play, respectively, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson; three African-American female mathematicians who played significant roles in NASA’s efforts to send a man into space – and eventually to the moon – and win the space race against the Soviet Union. Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson’s achievements are even more monumental when one realises the odds that they were up against and how they had to force their reluctant peers and supervisors to recognise their worth despite their gender and their race and the racism (both casual and overt) of the day. The three leading ladies carry the movie easily (Octavia Spencer being rewarded with an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category) and are well-supported by the likes of Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali and Kirsten Dunst.
Hidden Figures should not be missed. It is a good movie as is but in how it reminds us how far the United States (and the world) has come in such a short space of time (the events depicted occurred less than 60 years ago) from a society where such concepts as separate water-coolers and rest-rooms for “whites” and “coloreds” were the norm, its significance is elevated. It similarly makes mathematics (and learning) “sexy” and “cool” and gives us role-models for women and family (particularly important in the African-American context). For all that Hidden Figures deserved its Oscar nomination for Best Film.
Cut to chase: An important true-life tale.
Dir: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan
Tom Hanks is the go-to guy for playing principled men with a sense of duty and honour – ordinary (or so they like to think) men who are able to achieve extraordinary things when tested. So he was the obvious choice to play Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways captain who landed his disabled aircraft safely on the Hudson River on January 15, 2009 saving the lives of all passengers and crew – 155 people in total – aboard.
Hanks is excellent (as pretty much always) and director Clint Eastwood is economical (as always) and expert in his telling of the tale – the movie is only about an hour and a half long. However, the problem is that there isn’t that much of a tale even though Eastwood cleverly opens with the crash landing (returning to it from different perspectives and details throughout the film) and then depicts its aftermath in the efforts of the National Transportation Safety Board to prove that the landing on the river wasn’t necessary and that there was enough time for the plane to return to a designated airport. Despite a quite effective final recreation of the events near the end of the movie, the attempts to drum up suspense don’t really work because we pretty much know how it all turned out and we never really get too far under the skin of any of the characters.
Cut to chase: Never boring but the movie never really takes flight.
Rating system: *Not on your life ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection