Roche: To be honest, when we made plans to see Hidden Figures, for me it was just checking a box. Not that I thought it would be bad, but “inspiring” biopics are a dime a dozen in the wintertime. Yet Hidden Figures charmed me. It works as an entertainment above and beyond its historical significance.
Brenna: I concur. I started seeing previews for this maybe in 2015, I felt, and had been looking forward to it. I've been nursing a tendre for Janelle Monáe since the first time I heard "Tightrope" in the spring of 2010; she went 2 for 2 this year in choosing stellar parts (the other being in Moonlight). I was going to see it no matter what, cheese or not.
R: I'm not aware of Janelle Monae's acting before these two roles but she's amazing. I'm glad Octavia Spencer got another Oscar nomination for this, but I was pulling for Monae.
B: So I understand your trepidation about the "inspiration" and how pat or trite they can be with their music cues and tidy resolutions, but I felt that even when this movie hit those beats, it did so more effectively than I have seen in a while. It reminded more of how I felt about this kind of movie when I was younger, honestly - it was good enough to erode some of my cynicism. And that's quite a feat, when you're making Jim Parsons your stock nerd villain. I'm trying to think of a good example - maybe Apollo 13 or even one of those '90s sports flicks (does Necessary Roughness count?) that make you cheer despite knowing the ending.
R: Necessary Roughness absolutely counts. But the movie I kept coming back to was Good Will Hunting. The overall frame isn't new but you love these women and want to see them succeed. It's a classic underdog story. And the math is more complex in Hidden Figures.
Brenna: Taraji P. Henson, as Katherine Coleman, centers the narrative and could have carried the film alone. She has a wonderful quiet dignity in this character, someone who is confident in her fierce intelligence but a little shy, and acutely aware of how her race and gender place her in every room she enters. Overall, I think the movie does a great job of making the perspective very much that of the black women of the story (Katherine, Dorothy Vaughn [played by Octavia Spencer] and Mary Jackson [Monáe]).
R: Yeah, even 10 years ago, this movie would probably have focused more on the white bosses than the black mathematicians.
B: The script is forgiving to the various white characters without creating any White Saviors or terribly contrived moments of connection.
R: "It's not your fault Katherine- you had to walk three buildings to use the segregated bathroom."
B: I think due credit goes to Kevin Costner, as Katherine's boss Al Harrison, who gives a credible performance as a group leader who prioritizes results - and whose blind spots and casual "-isms" are the result more of his work focus and unconscious privilege than malice or bias. And it's no surprise that he looks right at home in those horn-rimmed glasses.
R: Costner is back. He's slid into the character actor phase of his career, and it's like he's been playing withholding authority figures this whole time. After the Sputnik launch, Costner gives a tough yet practical halftime pep talk to the team of mathematicians that had me willing to work nights and weekends.
B: Back to the music for a moment - I had read a lovely article about Pharrell Williams's involvement in the film with both music and production, and so came in fully prepared to dig it the most. It was still Williams-y - as in, John Williams - but definitely updated in a way to suit both the soul (because black people) of the movie as well as the sensibility of a modern audience. Not too heavy-handed, not too showy, just all the way good.
R: It's pretty arbitrary that orchestral music the only kind of movie score. Pharrell's music was a refreshing change and gave the movie a personality of its own.
B: The costumes were another delight for me, but then I actually own some dresses from the sixties, so that aesthetic appeals to me anyway. I think it's leveraged well in communicating the personality and status of each character here - with jewelry, in fact, becoming a minor plot point for Katherine.
R: I loved the sets as well, by Wynn Thomas (Do the Right Thing, Mars Attacks). The characters inhabit several different specific environments - the secretarial pool, the crowded TASK group office where it feels like no one ever goes home, mission control, the sterile NASA computer room (I see where Kubrick got the inspiration for 2001). All of these are beautifully rendered and speak to the characters' journey.
B: I don't know that director Theodore Melfi is necessarily changing the landscape of film with this, but I do appreciate the balance he brought to the script (co-written with Allison Schroeder) and finished movie. It's just really good - a movie that I'll want to watch with my kids, and would watch with my parents, and if I still had cable would sit down on a future Saturday to watch through if I accidentally caught it. Two thumbs up.
R: Two thumbs here too. I still have cable and look forward to seeing Hidden Figures grow in reputation.