Hidden Figures is a rote, by-the-numbers biopic, with dime-a-dozen filmmaking preventing any real performances from a series of great actors and actresses. There isn’t an original beat in this film, every moment note-for-note copied from dozens of films before. The grudging earning of respect, the breakthroughs made, the peaks and valleys and ups and downs – all of this has been done so many times before.
If I sound especially critical of Hidden Figures, it’s because this is an exciting story, an exciting cast, and there’s no reason for these Oscar-bait type biopics that follow so closely to the most basic of formula to be made so boringly. It’s great that a film like this, about minorities achieving against all odds, gets made. But structurally this film really isn’t that different from a film like, say, Tate Taylor’s 42, which covers much of the same ground. I understand the hesitancy; you don’t want the structure, the craft, or the storytelling, to overcome the story itself. But it feels like filmmakers squandering a great opportunity to push the envelope even just a little bit.
Featuring a star-studded cast, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson – this is probably not quite the right use for her particular sensibilities as an actress, but she’s good nonetheless), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer – playing a role she’s played a number of times before), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, she’s a star in the making, truly magnetic), three African American women who work for NASA during the space race, helping to complete the complicated mathematical computations needed to launch spacecraft.
Helping to at times place obstacles in their way, at times lavish them with praise, are Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), Paul Stafford (Sheldon himself, Jim Parsons), and Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Though the three white characters here are all distinct, the roles they play are, in a sense, somewhat interchangeable. All three are at times skeptical, as if to say “A black women? In science? Laughable”, with emphasis on different parts of that sentence (“A black woman?” “A black woman?”) but later seem to have gained respect for the black women and now are willing to break barriers and norms to keep them involved – look how far the white people have come! Look! I get it, but again, these characters just feel like gradations on a theme here.
Also appearing is Mahershala Ali as Jim Johnson, a military officer who (spoiler even though it’s inevitable and obvious from the very first second he appears on screen) goes on to marry Katherine Goble. Ali is good, sensual as always, charming, and ultimately wasted here.
Hidden Figures is a fine film if you’re just looking for a charming story told in the most straight-down-the-middle, boring way. These films are inevitable and this is neither the first nor the last of them. Maybe one day, one of these films will inch forward towards showing us something new; for now, we’re stuck with this.