Hidden Figures

For F*** Magazine

HIDDEN FIGURES

Director : Theodore Melfi
Cast : Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 2h 7min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : PG

 

hidden-figures-posterDuring the 1960s, the world was transfixed by the Space Race, during which the United States battled the USSR for the conquest of the final frontier. While attention was lavished on the astronauts, the engineers and technicians who made the missions possible went largely unnoticed. This film sheds light on several real-life unsung heroes who laboured to make Project Mercury a success.

It is 1962 and Katherine Goble (Henson), a mathematics prodigy, works at the West Area Computers division of NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia. Katherine’s colleagues and friends Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe) are also part of a group of female African-American “computers”, who performed complex calculations manually before computers as we know them today were in widespread use.

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Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group overseen by Al Harrison (Costner), becoming the only black woman amongst the group of white engineers. She earns the contempt of head engineer Paul Stafford (Parsons), whose calculations she double-checks. Dorothy appeals for a promotion to supervisor, which is rejected by her manager Vivian (Dunst). Concerned that the installation of the IBM 7090 computer will render her and her team obsolete, Dorothy teaches herself the programming language Fortran and trains her colleagues in it. Mary yearns for an engineering job at NASA, but is required to take extra University of Virginia classes, which are held in an all-white high school, to qualify. Mary makes her case to attend said classes before a judge. With the Americans and Soviets neck-and-neck, the contributions made by Katherine, Dorothy, Mary and their peers are key in the success of the American space program.

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Hidden Figures is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name, which is subtitled ‘The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race’. Lee’s father worked as a research scientist at the Langley facility, and she grew up among African-American families with members who worked at NASA. Lee’s book was adapted for the screen by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, with Melfi directing. True stories like this are why the biopic subgenre exists, and the story of the African-American women who launched a rocket through the glass ceiling is one that absolutely deserves to be told on the big screen.

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The obstacles that stood in the way of these women were numerous, seeing how they were marginalised for both their race and their gender. Hidden Figures provides ample historical context, with Katherine, Dorothy and Mary standing at the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the Space Race. Because this is a story about mathematicians, it can get dense and technical at times – this reviewer will be first to admit to being terrible at and intimidated by maths. The film does not dumb down this crucial element of the story, and great pains are taken to credibly portray the process of calculating trajectories or programming the IBM 7090.

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Henson’s lead performance is engrossing and mesmerising. She portrays Katherine Goble as someone who is as passionate as she is hardworking, since Katherine did not have the privilege of merely coasting on her innate talent at mathematics. After her husband James dies of a brain tumour, Katherine and her mother Joylette (Donna Briscoe) are left to care for Katherine’s three children. The film’s romantic subplot, in which military officer Jim Johnson (Ali) woos Katherine, is just the right level of sweet.

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While Henson’s Katherine gets the most screen time out of the three leads, Dorothy and Mary get their own satisfying arcs as well. Dorothy’s drive in getting ahead of the curve so as not to be displaced by the newly-installed machines is rousing, while Monáe brings a confident feistiness to Mary, the most outspoken of the trio. Between this film and Moonlight, singer-songwriter Monáe is proving that she possesses not only impressive pipes and stage presence, but considerable acting chops too.

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Costner is a dependable presence as the firm but fair director of the Space Task Group. However, the supporting characters are where some of Hidden Figures’ authenticity is eroded. Composite characters are common in films based on a true story, and it turns out that “Al Harrison” is an amalgamation of three different directors at NASA’s Langley facility. This was done because Melfi was unable to secure the rights to portray the real-life NASA director. Both Parsons’ and Dunst’s antagonist characters are also fictional. They serve to embody the general prejudices of the times without being over-the-top villains, but also give the story a slightly Hollywood-ised feel. On the other hand, there’s actual historical figure John Glen, portrayed with winsomeness and good-natured charm by Glen Powell.

Hidden Figures is by no means a subtle film, but the racism of the time was far from subtle. This is a prestige picture that does not radiate hollow self-importance, but shines a light on little-known heroes who had the deck stacked against them. Thanks to this film and the book on which it is based, the contributions of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary remain hidden no longer.

 

Summary: While it’s fashioned as an awards season crowd-pleaser, the importance of Hidden Figures can’t be denied. More than just a history lesson, this film is genuinely inspiring and its message is as pertinent as ever.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Midnight Special

For F*** Magazine

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL 

Director : Jeff Nichols
Cast : Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard, Jaeden Lieberher
Genre : Sci-Fi/Drama
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 21 April 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

As kids, many of our parents would’ve told us were special. We either believed it but stopped as we got older, or never believed it in the first place. Well, Alton (Lieberher) is a genuinely special kid, gifted with superhuman abilities and revered by a religious cult in Texas led by preacher Calvin Meyer (Shepard). Alton’s father Roy Tomlin (Shannon), alongside Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Edgerton), escapes from the cult and Roy is accused of kidnapping Alton. Alton’s mother Sarah (Dunst) has been expelled from the cult and has not seen her son in two years. The family are reunited but far from safe as government agents and enforcers from the cult alike pursue Alton. In the meantime, NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Driver) discovers that Alton possesses classified government knowledge that would ordinarily be impossible to acquire, and attempts to determine where Alton derives his powers from. 

Midnight Special is a sci-fi drama that has been described as being redolent of Amblin Entertainment films of yore, movies like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While the plot elements superficially come off as X-Files-esque – a creepy cult, an unearthly child, government agents on the kid’s tail – writer-director Jeff Nichols is aiming for anything but a conventional thriller. Midnight Special is very much a slow burn and what initially starts off as an intriguingly ominous mystery drops off into a generally uninteresting road trip before building back up to a mind-bending conclusion. The film’s juxtaposition of the fantastical and the mundane, set mostly in rural American locales, reminded this reviewer of Looper, which also featured a child with incredible powers. There are also shades of many a superhero tale, and Alton is seen reading issues of Superman and Teen Titans.

Nichols wrote the film as a meditation on becoming a father. When he was coming up with the story for Midnight Special, Nichols’ then-8-month-old son had a febrile seizure; this was a sobering moment that struck Nichols and his wife. Indeed, the bond between parent and child is Midnight Special’s driving emotional force; Nichols taking great care in avoiding full-on schmaltziness. There’s a detachedness to Midnight Special that works both for and against it; in steering clear of the cheesiness of its influences, the film also sacrifices a degree of warmth. The moments of spectacle are judicious and the special and visual effects serve the story well (apart from a few shots of phony-looking helicopters). There’s an intimacy but also a tacit sense of scale surrounding the story, with the National Guard scurrying about as afore-mentioned helicopters buzz overhead.

This is Shannon’s fourth collaboration with Nichols, and the director clearly brings out something in him we don’t see very often. Shannon is one of those actors who generally projects menace even when he’s not playing a villainous role, so to see him as a steadfast, protective Papa Wolf and to see him excel at it is one of the best things Midnight Specialhas going for it. Dunst brings a shattered, haunted quality to Sarah – physically, she is free from the control of the cult, but its tendrils are still wrapped around her mind as she makes up for the two years she should’ve spent with her son that were taken from her. Edgerton’s Lucas is the muscle; his connection to Roy and Sarah not made readily apparent. The character’s primary function in the plot is to argue with Roy over the proper way to guard over Alton.

Lieberher may not be one of those child actors whose performance is so transcendent as to leave everyone gushing over it, but he tackles the challenge of making Alton seem strange without going full-tilt creepy. It can be seen as a metaphor for caring for a child who is on the Autism spectrum or who has other developmental disorders – these children often feel they do not belong in the world, and their parents must construct a bespoke world for them. Driver is exceedingly likeable as the stock nerdy character amongst all the G-men and military types who sees something nobody else does. He apparently received the news that he was cast in Star Wars during his first day on the set of Midnight Special.

One man’s fascinating is another’s frustrating – this is very true of Midnight Special. Nichols draws the viewer in with what promises to be one corker of a mystery, only to lose us in the middle, before pulling us back in for a spectacular finale which, while not a cop-out per se, still leaves a great many questions unanswered. Ambiguity can be used either with intent or as a cheat and the ending is far from satisfactory. Midnight Special will be the starting point for many a post-movie family conversation; it’s far from light and fluffy but is ostensibly a family film at the end of the day. It might result in more head-scratching than self-reflective pondering, though.

Summary: Midnight Special’s pacing issues and difficulties in delivering a satisfying conclusion do not entirely nullify its introspective approach to the sci-fi drama genre, with Michael Shannon in particular delivering a heart-rending performance.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong