Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

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Hidden Figures is the strange sort of film where absolutely everything, even and sometimes especially the not insignificant number of well-done parts, act as a sort of detriment. It is a disappointment, for sure, but there is something in its shamelessly crowd-pleasing manner that feels both ingratiating and off-putting.

The first oddity of Hidden Figures is its altogether odd attempts at a sort of verisimilitude through a mixed visual style. Most of the film takes place in flat but serviceable digital, but the opening few minutes, set in the 1930s, are irritatingly manipulated to seem “vintage” (a useless effect since the date is shown in a chyron). But the majority of the work seems to have gone into darkening the images to an absurd extent, an effect which serves as the opposite to the extensive “bright” CGI used in the second half of the film. It isn’t extraneous, as there are vital scenes surrounding the spaceflights of the Mercury 7, but it feels distracting, often coupled with archival footage where the shift from film grain to sleek digital destroys a sense of continuity.

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Of course, this isn’t a serious issue, but it does feel in some ways illustrative of the often thoughtless approach that the filmmakers seem to hold towards history and particularly the legacy of these intelligent and essential women. Inherent in most biopics of geniuses seems to be the tendency is to minimize the actual minutiae of the work done in favor of recounting their personal struggles, but Hidden Figures carries this out to an alarming degree. Melfi focuses almost wholly on the journey these three women take to attaining the positions that they want rather than the work they actually do, among other things glossing over the brilliance that Katharine (Taraji P. Henson) displays with her meticulous mind for calculation and skipping entirely the classes that Mary (Janelle Monáe) takes to become an engineer for NASA.

Instead, Hidden Figures lords over the big moments, like Katharine’s outburst at the continued indignity of being forced to walk a mile to the nearest black women’s restroom, or Dorothy’s (Octavia Spencer) putdown of her superior’s (Kirsten Dunst) misguided intentions, or Mary’s speech to a judge arguing for her right to attend an all-white school. These scenes don’t even possess the sense of feeling that the pleasant but extraneous stretches that feature a romance between Katharine and a colonel in the National Guard (Mahershala Ali) or scenes with the women and their families, too caught up in appearing passionate that they forget to be anything more than statements.

It is this obsession with statements that dooms Hidden Figures. Despite game performances from the entire cast, especially Ali and Monáe, the real-life subjects are let down by a disinterest in their true and lasting contributions, which are largely relegated to the requisite closing intertitles. In a way, the use of figures in the title is fitting; the characters are held up far more as icons rather than real people.

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