Friday 24 February 2017

Ladies who launch: "Hidden Figures"

The surprise hit of this year's awards cycle - taking $145m to date in the US, by comparison with La La Land's $135m - Hidden Figures turns out to be a very old-school entertainment, operating in much the same vein as 2011's much-feted The Help. Given that this awards season has thrown up such singular, elliptical works as Moonlight and Loving, this overt crowdpleaser is perhaps the race story the majority of Academy voters will be most comfortable with, shaping a notable and underheralded true-life story - that of the African-American women who helped get NASA's space program off the ground - for easy multiplex matinee consumption; its merits as cinema, rather than business or opportunity for industry virtue-signalling, strike me as rather more open to question.

Theodore Melfi's film, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's non-fiction account by the director and Allison Schroeder, opens in 1961, at the start of a pivotal decade in space exploration. Rather than the usual Caucasian male perspective on these events, however, we're offered something else: a celebration of three black women - Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) - employed as NASA mathematicians during this period. Despite being treated as ancillary staff and second-class citizens by some of their superiors and colleagues, these gals came through with the calculations that succeeded in putting John Glenn et al. into orbit. You've heard of The Right Stuff; well here, at long last, is The Non-White Stuff. 

"Civil rights aren't always civil," posits Mary's husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) in an early scene, yet while Hidden Figures unfolds in the opening years of an altogether tumultuous decade back on Planet Earth, it proves civil to a fault: genteel, PG-rated, and - as its original Pharrell Williams compositions segue seamlessly into its soundtrack of period hits - all too blandly and smoothly digestible, breaking down every last one of its plot and character beats so that even the Odeon's slower popcorn-munchers can grasp the significance of what's happening. Melfi, who oversaw 2014's pretty lazy Bill Murray vehicle St. Vincent, most often seems to be angling not for awards but for a gig directing for the Hallmark Channel.

The complex business of astro geometry - overseen by Kevin Costner, with our heroines hindered by an uptight Jim Parsons and a brittle Kirsten Dunst on sets that look and feel very much like sets (the space inserts, similarly, have zero atmosphere) - is but a peripheral element, dutifully logged alongside material that would appear to have its basis in savvy producers' notes: a plain-sailing romance between Henson and devoted man-in-uniform Mahershala Ali, afterwork bonding scenes of eating, drinking and dancing. The literal running joke that sees Henson dashing from one side of NASA's Langley campus to the other to get to and from the institution's designated "coloured" bathroom is a rather too obvious screenwriting shortcut, designed to jolly up the era's myriad iniquities before delivering a neat, would-be heartwarming punchline.

All that ultimately distinguishes it is the casting of women of colour in roles the movies haven't typically associated with women of colour. (Even here, though, you need only compare it with the vibrant characterisations of, say, TV's Orange is the New Black to see how Hidden Figures' defining shade is beige.) The leads are experienced enough to sneak traces of personality into cardboard cutout creations: Spencer, matronly and watchful, squeezes a few chuckles from her duets with the agency's new IBM computer; Monáe, playing the designated sparky one, pours warmth into the sidebar detailing Mary's struggles to be taken seriously in her aspirations to be an engineer.

Henson, though, is sensible bordering on cautious, in a way that fits Katherine Johnson's predicament but also makes one wonder: is this generally effusive performer reining herself in to allay our suspicions Hidden Figures might have better functioned as a shoot-for-the-moon star vehicle - The Katherine Johnson Story - rather than the somewhat slack-shouldered, Help-y ensemble piece it's been converted into? Is it the case that the studios simply wouldn't have funded a film focused on a little-known African-American woman - that it was a safer spread bet to present audiences with three demographic-spanning leads, no matter that they have to be crowbarred into the same shot? (The cowardice may run deeper than just the filmmaking.)

In the end, it's the same old Hollywood trad - as signalled by the casting of rent-a-coach Costner, bringing his usual gravitas to bear on more or less the same white ally part as Emma Stone took up in The Help - and its accessibility and success may yet lend it a wider social function: much as you can imagine Moonlight serving as a balm for young men wrestling with their sexuality, Hidden Figures might just tempt young women (and young women of colour, especially) into a closer engagement with maths and science. As a standalone film, though, it looks like a perilously flimsy launchpad, constructed of equal parts chocolate-box wrapping paper, Robert McKee-derived cliché and wispy good intentions you could as easily poke your finger through as applaud.

Hidden Figures is now playing in cinemas nationwide.   

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