In the 60s, the Soviets and the USA were racing each other to put a man in space. The problem for the USA was that they were stuck on the ground whilst the Soviets had cracked the equations needed to get them into space. What the geniuses of NASA needed was something different and in a time of racial segregation and gender inequality, you cannot get much more different than a small group of extremely intelligent black women. Enter mathematician Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and not-quite-a-supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) who step up to the plate despite oppression and the egos of their white male counterparts to change the face of American history forever.
The film may be Hidden Figures in name, but not in nature. In fact, Hidden Figures' greatest strengths lie in its talented cast who dazzle throughout. The standouts come in the form of lead Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Costner who are the spearheads of the work at NASA. It is Harrison who makes movements to remove the segregation from NASA to allow his top computer to not have to run across campus to the bathroom, and Costner plays it with a cool authority; he is likeable and determined. Henson's Johnson, too, fights fearlessly for an equal workspace where her mind can be recgonised. Unlike other films this year (cough Suicide Squad cough) who let their supporting cast get absorbed by the background, Hidden Figures lets theirs shine. Monáe and Spencer are both delightful additions to the film and make it what it what it is. They balance the tone and add comic relief to an otherwise heavy subject matter.
Hidden Figures tells a nice story. It's a feel-good narrative of the underdog fighting oppression and segregation that appeals to our humanity and our morality. However there is little new or exciting about it. Whilst the performances are powerful and the film is well constructed, it often feels like we are hearing a story we have heard before and director Theodore Melfi plays it safe, keeping the story accessible and familiar. This has its advantages: the story is an important one, and its crucial that as many people as possible can enjoy it so that these women can be remembered. The disadvantage of course is that it doesn't feel special, courageous, or different and these are all adjectives that describe the protagonists; rather than embrace what made these women great, Melfi tells a great story with as little risk as possible.
Enjoyable but forgettable, which is a shame. A typical film for this time of year: a well produced, socially challenging piece of cinema that does a bit of everything, but not quite enough of anything. Its cast pull the film out of the realms of mediocrity, but not enough to excel it to greatness.