In between Apollo 13 and now Hidden Figures, it is kind of amazing to me to see some of the methods NASA used to get to a solution. Some were simple, and others less so, but more often than not there seemed to be a sense of getting a mission accomplished above the standard that things either in the here and now micro level of Jim Lowell's moon mission, or the larger issue of racism, that is a welcome change of pace, for sure.
Margot Lee Shetterly's book was adapted by Allison Schroeder in her feature screenwriting debut and Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), the latter of whom directed. Set in 1961 Virginia, the film focuses on three African American women who are working at NASA during the Space Race period with Russia, and in the role of mathematicians for the group. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, Bad Santa 2), serves as a de facto head of department of other black women who do work for the astronauts, which includes Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, Rio 2) and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, Empire). Katherine's work on rocket trajectories helped lead to the success of the early Mercury mission orbits that astronauts like John Glenn participated in. You had some bureaucratic obstacles that served as larger social ones that conflicted the characters, be it Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst, Midnight Special) for Dorothy, or Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, Big Bang Theory) for Katherine. At the end of it all was Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, Black or White), who wanted to beat the Russians, and didn't care who helped to realize that goal.
Hidden Figures does a good job of putting the chess pieces on the board early for a couple of reasons, first was that it would seem to have been unrealistic to have white antagonists impede the path of what Johnson, Jackson and Vaughn were hoping to accomplish. At the end of the day, NASA was looking to get people on the moon, and blatant racism, at least compared to what was outside the NASA campus then, would presumably be not so prevalent. It's not to say that lesser behaviors and actions didn't exist, but everyone wanted to beat Russia to the moon. When Russia beat them to orbits, the NASA folks from Harrison downward took it hard, as they should.
Also, some of the ladies were dealing with racism off campus just the same and the film doesn't shy from it. There is an educational moment where Vaughn tells her kids about it and how to respond to it, and Johnson develops a relationship with an Armed Forces Colonel (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight) who doubts her mathematical skill. It's Johnson and by extension Henson's performance of her, as a single mother and widow who is trying to forge new ground at the work place and at home with her relationships, that steals the show.
This isn't to say that she's the only one who does well here because the actors and actresses all put in good performances, because Spencer and Monae do well, as do Parsons and Dunst. Even Costner manages to serve as an aloof yet sympathetic figure who wants the mission done, and this palatable sense of color-blindness is impressive to see from him. You get the sense that the ensemble really wanted to do right by the story and the ladies at the center of it, and that effort is reflected in the final product.
I have to wonder sometimes just how many surprising stories NASA holds about the early and intermediate space days, past the ones we know about. Hidden Figures tells a fascinating story that it doesn't get in the way of, and is helped along by very good performances by just about everyone of consequence in the movie. Open up the vault NASA, tell us everything!The Blu-ray:
Fox provides an AVC encode for the high-definition transfer of Hidden Figures, and it looks quite the jewel. Mandy Walker handled the cinematography, and the film gets a chance to explore some nice Georgia exteriors (the scene where the ladies get a police escort looks particularly beautiful), and in Johnson's home, the detail is easily discernible and consistent. The color palette looks vibrant and has no saturation problems, DNR is held to a minimum as well as haloing. It juggles a couple of different film stocks easily and without concern and looks the part.The Sound:
The film comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. Musician Pharrell Williams serves as one of the film's producers and contributes some tunes to the film, and the film gets a chance to show off an impressive dynamic range for it, and in other moments such as when the capsules are getting into re-entry or splashdown, the subwoofer gets involved, along with the rear channels to bring in panning and directional effects. Dialogue was clear as a bell and consistent throughout, and the film's technical merits were much better than I expected.Extras:
Melfi and Henson do a commentary that doesn't add a lot to the enjoyment of the film, as they watch it and occasionally add supplemental information on the production or the history involved. There is some production recollection and shot breakdown, and general raving about the ensemble, but nothing jaw dropping. That's saved for "It All Adds Up," a multi-part, 40-minute look at the story and production. This is the better one of the bunch as the ensemble discuss any previous knowledge of the ladies before taking on the role, and Melfi discusses turning down directing one of the Spider-Man movies to do this. The challenge of adapting the story to screenplay form is recalled, and the group share their thoughts on one another and the roles they play, while hair, wardrobe and location design are recounted, along with Williams' participation in the music and production. Altogether a very good series of featurettes.
The remaining extras are the usual things: eight deleted scenes (10:14) are good, particularly Henson's character talking to her late husband, "Filming in Georgia" (5:15) is a now-requisite look at the Peachtree state-centric production, a stills gallery comes with it along with a trailer (2:25), to say nothing for the digital and standard definition copies of the movie.Final Thoughts:
Hidden Figures sheds light on a couple of things that not many people may have been aware of, and in between its good story and better performances, not many will forget. Technically it turns out to be a bit of a jewel and the bonus material, especially the making-of, are a worthy complement to the film. This may have slipped off people's radars during awards season, but now that it's available on video, seek the time out to experience this.