Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

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A slightly re-edited post of what I put up on Facebook. Wanted to share here too because I want people to know how GOOD this movie is, and to SEE it, and to PAY MONEY to see it because money talks to The Powers That Be.

Hidden Figures runs circles – many many circles – laps and laps of circles – around a couple of the most highly-lauded films of the year. It runs circles in every way that counts: storytelling (visuals, music, editing choices), character development, script construction. EVERY scene matters. There’s a build, a flow. Nothing interrupts that flow. There’s a great build from repetition: you see the same situation multiple times throughout the film, and each time you see it, it has shifted just slightly, until finally by the end you realize that the situation has been changed entirely: total transformation. This is extremely effective in terms of how you Tell a Story.

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The three lead actresses – Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae – are superb. While Henson’s character’s journey, as a “computer” working (in a group 100% white and 100% male) to figure out the New Math required to get the astronauts back home after being in orbit, takes the majority of time, the journeys of the other two are essential to getting the full picture of the sheer scope of involvement of African-American women in NASA. It’s not just the story of one woman. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, a woman with a mechanical bent (her father taught her), who oversees the group of “colored computers” hired by NASA in various capacities. It’s like a typing pool, only with math. Vaughan is a supervisor but in name only: she is not paid accordingly and does not have “supervisor” in her job title. She also realizes that that big IBM computer NASA is busy installing in a gigantic room may very well be a threat to her job security, so she sets out to teach herself programming because that’s where the jobs will be in the future. And Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, who realizes that in order to advance, she should probably get an engineering degree (she’s got a gift for it), but in order to get the degree, you need to take qualification classes, and the qualification classes are held at a whites-only school. So there’s your three-pronged structure to Hidden Figures.

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Hidden Figures has many cards it needs to deal: it needs to establish these characters, that world, it has to re-create those early NASA days, it has to show each of the three women and each of their very specific journeys, and it all has to feel like one thing. It succeeds in doing all of this. Theodore Melfi directed (and also co-wrote the adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book). Honestly, if the world were fair, Hidden Figures would be an Oscars sweep, in particular that script. Not to dismiss the contributions of the actresses, but that script is something else. I’d like to sit down with a hard copy of it and study it.

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Hidden Figures builds, block by block, to its end, where the sensation of triumph is so intense that I can still feel it right now, just thinking about it. It’s so triumphant that at the packed showing I saw at 9:25 a.m. (a packed movie theatre at 9:25 a.m. – just think about that.) – the entire audience erupted into applause at the end – when each of the real-life women got their own credit screen and we saw what happened to each one of them. The audience didn’t just burst into applause once. It applauded for the first name. The second name came, more applause. The third name came, more applause. Then came the final credit screen: title card and director’s name. A final round of applause. This was a spontaneous reaction from a paying audience. And only a critic would think that that was irrelevant or unimportant.

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Listen, I loved some of those highly-lauded films of 2016 too (although two of them have already not worn well and I saw them a month ago). But not ONE of those prestige movies – two of which will probably win a bunch of Oscars – did what THIS one did: make a bunch of strangers on a Monday morning clap for 5 minutes straight for four successive credit screens.

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Maybe it’s because my background is Show Biz, not criticism/film-studies. Coming from Show Biz, as I do, the notion that “crowd-pleasing” is somehow … a bad thing? … or a not-important thing? or that it means shallow and pandering and “light” … does not make sense to me. At all. Of course if you TRY to be “crowd pleasing” then yes, it can come off as pandering, or if the manipulation involved is too obvious (soundtrack choices, etc.) – if too much of that underlying structure shows, then yes, stop going for my heartstrings so obviously, Film. But “crowd-pleasing” as synonymous with pandering?

Let me break it down for you:

I want people who think “crowd-pleasing” is NOT a good thing to go to an open mic night, stand up in front of an audience, and tell a bunch of jokes. Or prepare a Shakespearean monologue and audition for a community theatre production in your town. Whatever: I want these people to prepare something and then get up in front of a crowd and deliver it. I want them to experience the PANIC you feel when you stand up in front of people and whatever it is you are doing doesn’t land, doesn’t go well. I want them to experience the self-loathing, the terror, the Flight Response of standing up in front of a crowd and NOT pleasing the crowd in any way whatsoever. Maybe if they actually experienced something like this they wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss “crowd-pleasing” as “lesser than” the Oh So Serious Prestigious Fare, or to make the COMPLETELY INCORRECT assumption that making something “crowd-pleasing” is easy.

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Hidden Figures does everything right and it does it at such a high level of competence and skill that not once did I feel its 2+ hour running time. I prefer movies to be shorter and I think most movies SHOULD be shorter. But Hidden Figures really NEEDS every single one of its scenes for the build it creates. There was no “fat” on this thing: every single section was necessary. I mean, you don’t watch Seven Samurai and think, “This would be much better if it were 85 minutes long.” There is nothing extraneous. Hidden Figures was one of the best films of the year – and now that I’ve seen it, that AV Club review is even more egregious. And don’t get me started on the review in Film Stage. And no I won’t provide the links because they don’t deserve the traffic. Fuck them. Like I always say, There is such a thing as a wrong opinion.

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So let’s hear it for Hidden Figures, a film that understands how to tell a story in the way classic Hollywood understood. Give the public what they want. Give them characters they can grasp onto, conflicts they can engage in, catharsis after a long struggle. Make them clap for 5 minutes on a rainy Monday morning.

Not every work of art is MEANT to be crowd-pleasing. Many of my favorite movies don’t give a shit what I think. But to please a crowd – the way this movie pleased the crowd I was in when I saw it – is

1. an important and essential goal in this Business we call Show
and
2. NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS.

Please see this film. And read my friend Odie’s review.

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13 Responses to Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

  1. Brooke A L says:

    I am definitely going to see this now: “Sheila O’Malley says I need to see it”.

    • sheila says:

      :) It’s so good!!

      • Brooke A L says:

        Sheila! I saw this today with my 70-something year old friend, Jeannie. I have so much to say, but it’s late and it took me several minutes of scrolling through your Elvis posts (!!) to even get here, so I gotta go fast!

        Yes, the film is absolutely seamless: effortless, a continuous flow. In fact, I was purposely looking out for the things you described about the script, but because it was so smooth you don’t notice anything. That is the point, and absolutely the great achievement of the film. It is certainly modeled on the classic era of Hollywood when continuity was everything, and making the audience feel like they weren’t seeing a movie. It’s kind of like the figurative, three-dimensional bent of painting before photography and modern art liberated it and moved it towards the formalism that eventually became abstract expressionism. Yes, I love painting of the modern era, but the classics have their place as well. I also felt that the film was really walking a tightrope in terms of tone and sentimentality, that it could come very close to being too “feel-good”, oh yay the whites and the blacks are having a moment, how sweet! feeling. BUT IT DOESN’T!! It JUST hits the right notes. It is sweet and sincere, and each moment is earned. As you said, there is no fat on this thing. I also love that you mention how the film slowly builds, block by block so that, even though the same scenes are basically being repeated of their daily lives at NASA, small and big changes keep occurring throughout so that by the end, indeed, it has completely changed. And you can certainly see them. The conversation you have below about Katherine’s daily sprint to the bathroom is so key. You know eventually something is going to happen as she is continually absent. But the way it shows how racism plays out in little, stupid, everyday ways is the key! That is what’s so important, how it manifests itself into daily fact, how it seeps into every facet of life in ways that are also absurd and humourous. Then when the guy has to run to get her: priceless! I also noticed that while they are running he starts going one way and she makes a right and motions him to follow her because of course she knows the fastest way to get there!! Then he opens the door for her! And she gets shut out of the control room – after doing emergency math, no less – only to be ushered in by Harrison (Costner was also great, I thought). There are no cheap moments in the film. It is tight and everything is earned.

        Which brings me to the point about the crowd-pleasing issue. Film studies is my background so sometimes crowd-pleasing can make me groan – not because it’s a bad thing, but because sometimes, if I’m being frank, audiences go see the shittiest films. I mean the big CGI blockbusters with nothing to say. But I also can’t stand academics or critics out of touch with reality and too far up their own ass. I can’t stand smugness or snarkiness (this is one of the reasons I love Paglia so much. That women has never been stuck in some ivory tower. She is always IN the everyday, and so much of what she says is connected to ordinary people. She also couldn’t stand Sontag because she says she became so full of herself – or more the aura surrounding her intellectual persona. It was less about the work and more about her ego). So basically, if a film is good, it’s good. I don’t care about genre or style or who made it (although of course those things are part of why we like something). If it’s a film worth seeing that’s it. So I do appreciate your commentary about the nature of pleasing the audience and just how difficult and complex that is. And old-school show-biz, that is for sure. For a long time I’ve thought the same thing: put yourself in the shoes of the person performing. You may not like it, and in certain cases it may even be terrible, but it’s always bothered me when people mock from the audience the vulnerability of the person or people on stage. So cowardly and petty and pathetic. I’m not a performer, but it’s something that interests me greatly (I made my own course on Cassavetes years ago in my first round of uni, and the whole issue of performance in his films is extraordinary and had a huge impact on me, and likely on you judging by your Gena Rowlands love). I have loved old Hollywood for so long and that whole era, even as fucked up as it was in so many ways, is so magical precisely because of the show-bizzy attitude. The professionalism, the drive to entertain, to give people something. It’s still there with many performers, but that age was long before the postmodern-let’s shit on everything and mock in a cocoon of insecure smugness. The ATTITUDE has changed. There won’t be another Dietrich or Taylor, Davis, Grant, any of them precisely because the HOW and even the WHY has changed in many ways. BUT, you know this so much better than I do, which is why I’m glad you write about it.

        A couple of other notes. I love classic cars and I just took a class called Car Culture, a crosslisted humanities/history course. It was SOO good and so many things reminded me of the class and what we learned. For one, the first thing I said to my friend when I saw their car was something like, “look at that car”!! (I think it’s a Chevrolet Bel Air and looks just like the one I saw at a car show this summer, colour and all). Of course the cars are beautiful, but what’s more interesting is the style. In the post-war years the automobile became entrenched in North American life, although more so in the US than here in Canada or in Mexico. The fins on the cars are so reflective of the Cold War era, and actually, everything that happens in the film is because of the battle between the US and Russian for supremacy. The building of the interstate highway system occurred during these years and was completely funded by the state. YET, the state, battling communism on cultural grounds, had to make it seem that the highway system was due to the people’s overwhelming embrace of automobility. We read a great article about this, which we had to summarize and basically the thesis is this: In his essay, Cotten Seiler argues that automobility became the symbol of individualism and freedom during the Cold War in 1950’s America, and interstate highways were built as tangible spaces to promote and exercise autonomy: “the state provided a space in which those modes of acting and being that fostered a Cold-War species of individualism prevailed” (Seiler, 8). The whole point of this, besides seeing the connection to car culture in the film (which also includes the ways African Americans used the automobile as a means of literally and metaphorical mobility), is the domination of ideology in the 20th century, which fostered all of NASA, highways, you name it. That is what makes the film so complex, the more you dig into it. There are a lot of ironies, absurdities and uncomfortable truths sitting alongside the extraordinary and exciting accomplishments of these women and the United States at that time.

        Last thing: I have a story that my friend told me after the film. She’s in her 70’s. She is retired, lives alone in this charming co-op building which gives her a discount on her rent because her pension is so meager. She is a painter (has been for many years), and she has been making money off of it lately. She’s a film lover who went back to school to study film studies in her forties and sees several movies a week, which includes sneaking into other ones after (yes, she’s a badass, a bit eccentric, and a sweet and delightful person). She has short white hair, black rimmed glasses and usually wears all black. Oh and she is obsessed with cats and has two black ones (I don’t like cats, they like me though. Don’t shoot me). I met her through a classic film meetup group here in Toronto a year ago, which is also hosted by a guy who looks like Edward Scissorhands and gives out button pins for each person who attends the screening!! (I have buttons of Charade, Niagara, two of Setsuko Hara, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and many more!!). ANYWAY, after the movie she told me yet another interesting story. She said the film reminded her of working in Toronto in the sixties. She had a job at Sun Life and was in charge of death claims or something. She worked near one of the bosses who did the interviews. There were very few black people here at the time, but from time to time some came for interviews. Jeannie could hear the interviews and said the man always talked to any black person very loudly and slowly, like they were morons. She couldn’t stand listening to this, so one day she wrote a letter to the Toronto Star describing what the boss did, but asked that they don’t publish her name because she didn’t want to get fired. Well, the Star called her, said they were publishing her letter, and that she would be anonymous. One day soon after she was called into an office of a higher up, not the man she wrote about, but someone else. He said, “So Jeannie, you’ve been writing letters to the Toronto Star?”. Of course she just played dumb for a while, but he said he knew her “style” (LOLS!!!) and that it was her. She got demoted to being the file girl that picks up everyone’s files, which she hated. But, she had an English boyfriend at the time and ended up quitting the job and moving with him to London during the swinging sixties! How incredible is that?! I just had to share that. She is so great. And so crazy sometimes.

        Anyway, I loved what you wrote Sheila, as always (I passed your blog and Ebert reviews on to Jeannie because I told her you said I had to see Hidden Figures, which is why we had to see it… obviously). You and Paglia are so necessary and welcome in your fearless commentaries. But that’s a conversation for another day. My only complaint is that you keep costing me sleep because I’m up reading your damn work!

        • sheila says:

          Brooke – I’m so glad you and your friend went and had such a good time!

          Yesterday came the news that Hidden Figures beat Rogue One at the box office this weekend. This is huge news. It’s the kind of news that should signal that maybe it’s time for a shift in business model out there in the Halls of Hollywood Power … although the idea that movies are for teenage boys and young men is pretty hard to combat, even when the money talks as strongly as it sometimes does. I’m just happy that this film is getting recognized AND that it has translated into a box office number that really speaks about the hunger for these kinds of stories.

          I cannot tell you how much I want to take a class called Car Culture. !!! It sounds fascinating! I knew a bit about the creation of the interstates and how much that transformed the country – but not so much the ideological bent that was behind it. and of course that innovation would then transform cars into Symbols. It makes perfect sense! I know that when I have visited the car museum at Graceland, I am struck practically dumb by the beauty of those automobiles – but also what they represented to this boy who had grown up dirt-poor, the son of sharecroppers. They were EVERYTHING. Not just mobility – although that was a huge deal too – but symbols of freedom and wealth and independence and all the rest.

          // I also felt that the film was really walking a tightrope in terms of tone and sentimentality, that it could come very close to being too “feel-good”, oh yay the whites and the blacks are having a moment, how sweet! feeling. BUT IT DOESN’T!! It JUST hits the right notes. //

          I so agree. There was a disagreement on FB the other day about Kevin Costner having a “white savior” moment when he smashed the bathroom sign – You know, “Hurrah for the White Man” thing – but I just didn’t see it that way. I think that’s the “White Knight” attitude I’ve railed about before – people who think they are allies getting offended on behalf of someone else – and getting it wrong. I mean, it was up to NASA to “get over themselves” – the black women working there couldn’t do it – they couldn’t take a sledgehammer to those signs – right? White refusal to participate in segregation – especially in these smaller practical ways – was part of chipping away at the institutional racism that was endemic. NASA, because they were practical, desegregated the bathrooms – I’m not sure if they were the first institution to do so – but they were way WAY ahead of the curve. Costner smashing the sign was certainly a theatrical moment – but it was in service of the WOMEN, not of HIM. It’s NOT like other scenes where a white person steps in and challenges racism and all the white people in the audience get to feel good about themselves. That scene just didn’t operate that way. It didn’t turn Costner into the Hero of the story in any way whatsoever. He didn’t hire Katherine. She was assigned there. He was hard on her, but he also recognized her brilliance. He needed her. He was clueless about how racism operated. He was clueless about bathrooms and separate coffee pots. and finally – once he saw it – he had had it. She was a necessary person on his team and these separate signs were bullshit, and you should be in this control room because you helped make it happen.

          I think seeing that scene as a White Savior moment is a TOTAL disservice to the women portrayed in the film.

          Your words on performance (and Cassavetes!!) really strikes a chord. I was thinking about that as I watched Bright Lights, the Carrie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds doc. Especially in regards to Reynolds, who came up in that brutal star system, worked her ass off, was a total professional, took pride in being able to make people smile – up until the very end, even when she was very ill.

          I loved the stories about your friend. She sounds awesome.

  2. Maureen says:

    I saw this trailer at the movie theater, and at the exact same time my daughter and I looked at each other and said “we need to see this!”. We’ll be going on Monday.

    I have a lot of feelings about the “crowd pleasing”. I absolutely feel that art should be in all forms, but trying to please a crowd-HURRAH! I love the Mummy movie with Brendan Fraser, I can’t even tell you how many times I have seen it. The commentaries on the DVD are exceptional, and one thing that really struck me, the writer and director Stephen Sommers said something, and I’m paraphrasing “We’re always thinking about what the audience wants, what is entertaining.”. I’m probably not getting the exact wording right, but his thought was what is fun and what will the audience love. His first thought was about the audience, while being true to his vision.

    I think that is why I love this movie so much, because it seemed like a throwback to the classics movies I adore. I’m not an artist, I’m not a performer, I just appreciate the hell out of those people who endeavor to entertain me.

    • sheila says:

      I so appreciate people who want to entertain too. There are a couple of sequences in the Carrie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds documentary – premiering tonight on HBO – that show the beauty/generosity of this kind of old-fashioned performer attitude. Debbie Reynolds, getting ready to do her show in Vegas, smiling at the camera, “It’s not Macbeth, you know … But if you can make people smile …”

      There’s room for all kinds of art and I love art that doesn’t care what I think. Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie was on my Top 10 and that movie barely cared that I was there at all.

      But to dismiss “crowd-pleasing” … this is mainly a film critic position, and I really do not understand it, and never will understand it. Who else go to see movies but crowds?

      Yes, there will be crowds who want to go see Bela Tarr. I’m one of them. But there are also crowds who will clap through the credits sequence in Hidden Figures. Either way you slice it, movies are FOR the public. I don’t know why this is hard for some of these people to understand.

      Hidden Figures is amazing – and I think you’ll see how much it nods to the throwback classics movies of the 40s and 50s. It knows exactly what it is doing every single second of the way. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

  3. Sheila

    “Maybe it’s because my background is showbiz not criticism film studies.”
    “Let me break it down for you.”
    Yes! Thank God, and you certainly did, hahaha!
    Besides your obvious gift for writing and brains, this is what separates you from other reviewers who don’t have a clue.
    When James Cagney was called by the AFI for his Lifetime Achievement Award he asked them, “Well, what do they want of me?” I was stuck by this.
    Not, what films are they showing of mine, or even what should I say?, but “What do they want of me?” Cagney, great actor, but foremost a great performer, there to entertain the people, give them what they want and do not break the first cardinal sin, Don’t bore people to death. All the while not only giving a great performance but breaking molds and doing things, like playing the very bad guy that you can’t take your eyes off and love even as he completely demoralizes a woman and smashes a grapefruit in her face but he does it with such grace and humor and we really don’t know how he does it.
    Reading Patti Smith’s take on what happened to her during the singing of Dylan’s Hard Rain you get a really clear take on what it feels like to perform. She, ‘breaks it down for you too’. She knew that song backwards and forwards and of course rehearsed it millions of times. But something went awry during it and it wasn’t because Kings and Queens were present and she didn’t forget the words. She said she was directly living the lines of the song so things got messy and it went off-track. And even after that you can see how she slightly stumbles through it, never really getting it back on. If you saw a movie with a singer doing this they would probably show the singer being triumphant after the first misstep. But she slightly keeps stumbling all through it. Sometimes this happens and reviewers who have not experienced these weird things for themselves about what can happen performing live don’t have this insight. But inside this stumble something deeper happens and more interesting then if it all went perfect!
    Anyway, what you wrote about performing is stuff I think about…..
    I started reading this because I want to see this but as usual your reviews take things much further and gives me stuff to think about!

    • sheila says:

      I love your insights, Regina! Especially in re Patti Smith! It’s such an important contribution to cultural conversation – and I do my best with it – mainly because I just don’t see it elsewhere. People who have never performed and who have never experienced the pressure of eyeballs staring at them just don’t get it. It’s “magic” to them – and in a way they’re right. There IS a magic to it.

      What is so great about Hidden Figures is that it feels effortless – a flow from scene to scene (in my opinion its greatest strength: without that, the actresses – good as they are – would not have been supported by the script in creating their characters) – but you KNOW that it’s not effortless at all.

      Now this is not a spoiler, but here’s one thing I’d love for you to look for – this doesn’t have to do so much with performing (although Henson – a very very funny woman in real life – performs the SHIT out of it – and as a onetime actress I so sympathized with the challenges she must have faced in this sequence): Her character has been transferred out of the “colored” building into the main building, into the team who has been assigned the task of basically creating the math (which hadn’t been created yet) to get John Glenn back to earth after his orbit. In other words, she enters an all-white and mostly male building. Her first day there she has to go to the bathroom and flies around the corridors in a panic looking for “her” bathroom. Nothing there. So she is forced to race across the campus back to “her” building so she can relieve herself. And this becomes part of her day: she has to race across the campus to go to the bathroom, and her white male colleagues all get increasingly annoyed at how many breaks she takes, having no idea what the real issue is.

      Anyway, this is an ongoing “bit.” Henson running at top speed, arms full of folders (so she can continue to work on calculations when she’s on the toilet) – in HEELS – across the parking lots. Sometimes the director chose to film her in long shot, so you see this crazy frantic figure racing across the wide space. It’s ENRAGING but also hilarious and absurd. But it has a deeper point: NASA ended up desegregating the bathrooms before any other institution in America – they were ahead of the curve – and they did so for their own practical reasons. They could not have their people have to take the time to go to other buildings. They needed them onsite. STILL: it is extraordinary that this totally white totally male culture was AHEAD of the rest of the country.

      Anyway, there is scene after scene after scene of her running to the bathroom – and in that repetition the director makes his point. The despicable FACT of racism – and how it manifested in people’s everyday lives – is there, clear as day.

      These sequences then pay off in the biggest possible way in a final sequence where a white male is forced to run the same route to go get her because she is needed by the Top Brass. So you see a white man racing at top speed across those parking lots – he then summons her – and THEN there’s a shot of the two of them running back TOGETHER.

      I just think this is so elegantly done: it’s fantastic storytelling, first of all – but it also has so many layers: In it – in all its humor and absurdity and pain – is the COST of racism on the most everyday basic level. AND: additionally – it shows why NASA of all institutions was like, “Oh hell no, fuck this.”

      This is crowd-pleasing technique. I cannot tell you how much these sequences resonated with me and with the audience I saw it with. In that final moment – with the white man and the black woman running TOGETHER on that same route that she had been running by herself, in shame and agony – people started cheering.

      You know? This is PROFOUND stuff. I thought THAT is how you tell your story.

      I had not heard that anecdote about James Cagney and it makes me want to cry!!! YES; that is the attitude of MOST performers, right? The hard-working ones, for sure. There’s a beautiful humility about it. Elvis was the same way. Well, people want things from me, and it would be bad form to complain, and so I will just keep giving it to them because it makes them happy. Professionalism.

  4. Kate F says:

    Can’t wait. Seeing it in an hour with my kids. I do not take a Sheila rave lightly! xoxo

  5. Asher Steinberg says:

    Hidden Figures is a nice movie. But I don’t see how you can say it’s seamless and nothing interrupts its “flow”; what about those horribly edited scenes where footage of Glenn’s failing mission is randomly intercut with confusing snippets of Janelle Monae pulling over and joining crowds on the side of some country road gazing up at the sky, where I guess we’re supposed to think Glenn’s craft can be seen, except they never cut to the sky or explain what she’s doing and it doesn’t make any sense that people are pulling over in the middle of a field to see if Glenn’s craft is crashing? For that matter, after each character gets their personal triumph, can’t the movie just stop? What does Glenn’s launch add? Why does the movie have to briefly turn into a less dramatic Apollo 13? Just because Pharrell produced the movie, did the movie have to use his annoying anachronistic ditty about acting “like you was there when you wasn’t” half a dozen times?

    Re: the perfection of the script, I did enjoy how aggressively dumb the script was at times; this is a movie where a character learns how to program a supercomputer that no one else in NASA can run by taking out what looks like the 50s equivalent of Windows for Dummies from her local public library (and where you know that’s what’s going to happen as soon as she takes the book out), and where a character persuades an openly racist judge to partially integrate a segregated school, just for her, by telling the judge that he was the first in his family to do a bunch of stuff, and if he lets her attend the school he’ll be the first person to do that too (????). That felt more like a comic skit of Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde as civil-rights lawyer than something out of a historical drama with pretensions to being at least somewhat accurate. Similarly, any scene where Henson’s character talked about math felt more like a parody of a dumb Hollywood movie’s approach to math than a serious attempt to dramatize NASA scientists doing math, like that aha moment Henson has where she goes, “maybe what we’re looking for isn’t new math, maybe it’s . . . OLD MATH!!!” (And then the guy standing next to her hilariously says “Euler’s method?? But that’s ancient!” – though it was less than 200 years old and no mathematician would ever reject an idea because it’s “ancient.”) Or what about that fellow Henson works with who gets enormous amounts of screen time even though he never develops beyond being a cartoon of a nerdy condescending racist mathematician, who’s just sort of there because the script needs a racist to balance out Kevin Costner? As I say, I did at times enjoy how aggressively and unashamedly the movie would go for really dumb non-naturalistic inspirational schmaltz, but ultimately it made it difficult to take the movie very seriously. The stakes of the whole thing felt really low; the real people on whom this story is based encountered unthinkable amounts of prejudice in every area of their everyday lives, inside and outside of work, but as far as the movie’s concerned, racism in the early-60s South was mainly a matter of segregated office bathrooms that became integrated the moment someone complained about them, and segregated schools that really aren’t segregated so long as you appeal to a judge’s vanity for 20 seconds.

  6. Myrtle says:

    I saw this today! There was indeed applause at the end, even 2 weeks or whatnot after opening night, with a sparser crowd. I walked out wishing Octavia Spencer had starring roles all the time. I wanted to watch 10 more hours of her character. The genius of Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson was acknowledged by other characters (Mary’s fellow engineers, several moments for Katherine). And they deserved them thoroughly, of course. But Dorothy Vaughan’s moments of triumphs tended to come alone or in scenes where she has to keep her head down and can’t show it. I’m thinking of the moment she turns out the lights in the Colored Computers room. It was almost like she was saying thankyou to the room, and now they’d outgrown it. 3 seconds or so conveyed a whole history of that journey.

    And then to see that she ended up regarded as one of the most brilliant minds at NASA. That choked me up; I was so glad for her.

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