Sunday, January 29, 2017
Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, is the story of African-American women working at NASA in the early 1960's and the contributions that they made to America's space program. The three women at the center of the film are all historically important and are acted with great energy, but Melfi and cowriter Allison Schroeder (working from a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly) have chosen to tell their story in the most crowd-pleasing way possible. Hidden Figures reduces its characters to just that - figures - and the film's self-satisfaction about their triumphs saps the moral urgency that could have provided a dramatic shape. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, cast against type) is introduced in prologue as a math prodigy, and her abilities soon land her a position as a "computer" (someone who makes mathematical calculations and checks others work) on the team working to put an American in Earth orbit. White colleagues like Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and project head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) tolerate Katherine at first but her talents soon reveal themselves, and I wish that Melfi and Schroeder could have found a way to demonstrate how much Johnson's mathematical ability added to NASA efforts. Instead we get numerous scenes of Katherine writing numbers on a chalkboard while her colleagues look on and, in the film's worst scene, Henson has to give a loud speech about segregated bathrooms to her boss in front of a room full of scientists. Perhaps some version of this happened but the scene plays like an on-the-nose movie moment as opposed to a human moment. Whenever a white character at NASA is called on their racism they go to a default setting of grudging respect, so Katherine's speech is immediately followed by Costner's character tearing down a "Colored Restroom" sign.
While Katherine is helping put John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space we also follow her friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Both Spencer and Monae lend their roles a simmering anger that Hidden Figures needed more of, but their stories are rounded off at the corners. Vaughan is portrayed as the only person who can get NASA's new IBM computer to work, and Jackson (who Monae plays with wonderful charisma) wins a court case to be allowed to study engineering. The white characters standing in opposition, including a supervisor played by Kirsten Dunst, aren't much more than placeholders and Hidden Figures rolls to a stop by scrolling through a litany of details about the considerable amount that Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson achieved in their careers. Hidden Figures is a welcome addition to our understanding of race relations and the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960's, but it needed more than good intentions.
When Clint Eastwood's Sully begins it seems to be about the way that America loves to chew up and spit out its heroes. It's 2009 and Captain "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) is being celebrated for landing a passenger plane on the Hudson River after a bird strike with no loss of life. Yet Sully is haunted by what could have happened - Eastwood alludes to 9/11 in the imagery of Sully's nightmares - and the NTSB investigators think he could have made it safely back to a runway. Sully the film is really a celebration of doing one's job well; the film turns on the idea that Sully and his first officer (Aaron Eckhart) needed time to summon their experience before reacting to an unexpected situation. Tom Hanks as Sully is a triumph of self-effacement, and Eastwood wisely doesn't overexplain the seriousness of the situation on board the flight or the level of complexity and improvisation needed to bring the plane down safely. It isn't easy to dramatize thinking on screen, but Eastwood and Hanks here find a way to make it vital.