Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Hidden Figures

I review a lot of movies here at Bob Canada's BlogWorld, and the vast, vast majority of them are utter crap. In fact, most of them aren't worth the few cents worth of power it takes to project them onto the cineplex screen. So this week I had a novel idea— why not review a movie that's actually good for a change!

So I did a quick scan of the cineplex, and saw that Hidden Figures is currently playing. I've heard good things about it, so off I went! 

How'd my experiment turn out? Read on!

Hidden Figures was written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, and directed by Theodore Melfi.

Schroeder previously wrote several episodes of various TV series, and Hidden Figures is her first shot at a theatrical film script. Melfi previously wrote and directed several short films, as well as writing and directing St. Vincent.

The movie's based on the non-fiction book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, which tells the true stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, three black women who played pivotal roles in the early days of NASA (the book features a fourth woman, Christine Darden, who apparently didn't make the cut in the movie).

Hidden Figures is an uplifting and inspirational tale about dedication and achieving your goals. It's also the mildest and most inoffensive anti-bigotry movie I've ever seen. The main characters experience prejudice and sexism in the workplace, but it happens in the nicest way possible. There's no violence, no bloodshed, and the worst racial epithet anyone ever utters is "colored."

This attitude extends to the film's racist characters as well, who are all downright polite even when they're spouting their hateful views. These white people aren't really evil, dontcha see, they're just misinformed, and they all end up rethinking their beliefs before the credits roll.

There's the briefest of hints of the civil unrest that was to come in the late 1960s (when one of the characters watches a race riot on TV), but it feels very disconnected from the rest of the film, and comes and goes in a flash.

This is what I call a Grandma Movie— an inoffensive film you wouldn't be embarrassed for your Nana to see. And despite the fact that it looks like a chick flick, there's enough stuff about NASA, astronauts and rockets in it to appeal to men as well.

Hidden Figures is most definitely a character driven film, as there's no real plot. The story, such as it is, focuses on Katherine Johnson, a NASA employee who encountered racism on the job, persevered and became an invaluable part of the organization. That's pretty much it! 

Don't get me wrong— Katherine's story is definitely one worth telling. The problem is there's just not much story to tell. It might have been better if the filmmakers had made a documentary about her life instead of trying to turn it into a full-blown narrative.

Since there's not much of a plot, the film has to rely on the characters and performances. This is where the movie really shines. The main characters are all relatable and engaging, and you can't help but root for them to succeed. The performances are all excellent as well, particularly Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn.

Longtime readers of my blog know that I am not a fan of biopics. That's because they're always riddled with inaccuracies and outright fabrications. 

I get why movies do this— life is messy, not cinematic. Sometimes it's necessary to exaggerate the events of a person's life for dramatic purposes. What I don't like is when a biopic invents incidents out of whole cloth in order to spice up the story. 

Unfortunately, Hidden Figures is guilty of this kind of fabrication. You can't have a story without conflict, and to have conflict, you need a villain. Apparently there were no villains in Katherine Johnson's life, so the movie simply creates them, inventing supervisors and co-workers who do everything in their power to hold her back and keep her from progressing.

This flies in the face of actual events (as told by Katherine herself) and does a huge disservice to NASA and the many employees there who had no problem with her race or gender. 

Despite a few hiccups like this, I actually enjoyed the movie quite a bit. I'd read about Katherine Johnson before I saw the film, so it was nice to see her story on the big screen, even if it wasn't perfect or completely accurate.

So far Hidden Figures is slowly plugging away at the box office. It's not a massive hit, most likely because 
it doesn't have "star" or "wars" in its title, but it's doing OK. It's grossed $85 million against its $25 million budget, which isn't bad. Movies today generally need to make twice their production budget before they break even, so it's done that while making a modest profit. It's probably still got a few more weeks of life left in it, so I wouldn't be surprised if it makes it to the $100 million mark.


The Plot:
We begin in 1961 Virginia, at the dawn of the Space Race, where we meet Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae). The three women work at NASA's Langley Research Center as human "computers," where they calculate orbits and trajectories by hand. 

They're driving to work one morning when their car breaks down. Dorothy takes a look at the engine and declares the starter's bad (?). Just then a racist sheriff pulls up and starts giving the three ladies trouble, until he finds out they work for NASA. He's so determined for America to beat the Commies into space that his national pride overcomes his prejudice, and he gives the women a police escort to work so they won't be late.

The ladies work in the West Area Computers division, a segregated department at Langley. Dorothy is the unofficial supervisor of the department, while Mary's a mechanical whiz who longs to be an engineer. Katherine's a certified math genius who skipped ahead several grades in school, showing up students nearly twice her age. She's the department's goto girl whenever someone needs complex calculations.

That morning the Director of the Space Task Group at Langley learns that Russia has just launched Sputnik 1, beating America into space. He worries that it won't be long before the Commies start using spaceships to lob bombs at us. He orders Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner), the supervisor of the Flight Research Division, to get a man into space ASAP.

Vivian Jackson (played by Kirsten Dunst), who I guess is the supervisor of all the women at Langely, enters and tells Dorothy the Flight Research Division needs a new computer. Dorothy recommends Katherine, who's the best there is at numbers. Vivian tells Katherine there's never been a colored person working in the Division before, and not to embarrass her. When Katherine walks in, she's immediately mistaken for a janitor, despite the fact that she's dressed in professional business attire. OK, we get it, movie. White people are all bigoted assholes!

Meanwhile in the Engineering Department, they're having trouble keeping the heat shields on the Friendship 7 space capsule prototype. Mary quickly deduces the problem, which impresses lead engineer Karl Zielinski. He tells her there's an engineering position open, but unfortunately Mary doesn't have the necessary degree to qualify. The only way she can get her degree is to take classes that are offered at a whites-only school. Yup. White people are all still assholes!

Dorothy speaks to Vivian and says she's already doing the work of a supervisor, but without the title or pay, and asks for an official promotion. Vivian practically bursts out laughing, and says, "Yeah, no." OK, movie, I think you've sufficiently made your point that white people are definitely assholes!

Katherine faces her own trials from the men in the Flight Research Division. Her coworker Paul Stafford (played by Jim Parsons— Sheldon Cooper himself!) dumps his massive reports on her desk to check, but blacks out pertinent info because it's classified, making it impossible to do her job. The staff also sets up an ancient "coloreds only" coffee pot for her to use. Assholes!

In the centerpiece of the entire film, Katherine feels the need to pee, and has to run half a mile (in heels) all the way across the massive Langley campus to the "coloreds only" restroom. This is such a major setpiece of the film that we even get a montage of her running back and forth to the restroom and doing her work in the bathroom stall.

That weekend Katherine, Dorothy and Mary go to a church picnic. She sees Jim Johnson, a handsome colonel, checking her out. They meet cute, and Jim asks her what she does for a living. When she says she's a NASA computer, he sticks his foot in his mouth and says he's surprised that they let women do that kind of work. This greatly offends Katherine, who leaves in a huff. This sets up Jim's redemption arc, and if you don't think they'll eventually end up together, then you've never seen a movie before.

Back at NASA, Al Harrison is impressed when Katherine solves a complicated equation that stumped the rest of the staff. He finds out that Paul's been blacking out classified info on her reports, she's obviously not a spy and tells him to knock it off. She begins typing up reports as written by Paul Stafford and Katherine Johnson. Paul becomes furious and tells her to remove her name. Oh, white people. 

The NASA employees all gather to meet John Glenn, who will soon become the first American in orbit. The black computers are separated from the white ones of course, but Glenn makes it a point to greet them as well, which greatly impresses Katherine.

NASA buys a new IBM electronic computer— the kind that fills up and entire room— but has trouble installing it. Dorothy realizes that this new tech will put her division out of business, so she begins learning FORTRAN programming. She soon has the computer up and running, to the amazement of the white male technicians. She begins teaching the ladies in her department how to program the computer as well.

Meanwhile, Mary (who kind of gets short shrift in the movie) goes before a judge to petition for the right to attend a whites-only school so she can get her engineering degree. She belts out a patented, impassioned Movie Speech™ which impresses him so much he agrees. At first the white male students are surprised to see her in their class, but eventually shrug and accept her presence. Hmm. Could it be that not all white people are assholes?

One day Katherine comes back from one of her long treks to the colored restroom, and incurs the wrath of Al, who demands to know why she's away from her desk so often. She blows up and tells him it's because she has to sprint half a mile across the campus multiple times a day because there are no other colored restrooms available, and storms out. For the first time Al gets a glimpse of what her life is like as a black woman. He uses a crowbar to take down all the "whites" and "colored" signs from every restroom on the campus, saying they don't have time for such nonsense. He says, "From now on everyone at NASA pees the same color!" Gosh, I guess maybe white people aren't assholes after all– they just need to be schooled!

After the bathroom incident, Katherine is shown more respect from her co-workers. She asks Al if she can attend the daily progress briefings, stating she could be more efficient if she got the data straight from the source. He says there's no protocol for a woman to attend the briefings. She reminds him there's no protocol for sending a man into orbit either. He agrees, and lets her attend. The generals and department heads all harrumph at  her presence, but Al tells them they all work together or not at all.

During the briefing, John Glenn is worried that the department hasn't figured out how to safely bring him back from orbit, as the math doesn't yet exist. Katherine calmly walks to the board and writes out a complex equation which solves the problem. Everyone's impressed, including Glenn.

Vivian transfers Dorothy to the IBM Department since they need someone there who understands FORTRAN. When Dorothy asks what'll happen to the other colored computers, Vivian says they'll be laid off, since their job is now obsolete. Dorothy refuses to  take the promotion unless "her girls" can come with her. Vivian reluctantly agrees, and Dorothy and her department proudly march across the campus to the new department, where they begin programming the IBM.

Katherine then receives some bad news— now that the calculations for John Glenn's Friendship 7 rocket have been completed, her job is over. She's sent back to Dorothy's group. 
That night a distraught Katherine comes home to find that Jim Johnson has cooked a special meal for her entire family, and asks her to marry him. She happily accepts. Told you they'd eventually get together!

The next day Friendship 7 is launched, and the entire world watches. A problem arises after it completes three of seven planned orbits. There's a discrepancy in the orbital re-entry numbers, which could kill Glenn if not corrected. Glenn demands they find "the girl" and have her recalculate his orbit. When Al asks what girl he's talking about, Glenn replies, "the smart one!"

Al orders a flunky to find Katherine. He locates her in Dorothy's group, and she quickly works out the new orbital equation. For some reason he races her back to the control center and hands her calculations to Al, then shuts the door, leaving her alone in the hall. As she starts to leave, Al opens the door and tells her to enter.

As Glenn starts his re-entry, he notices a problem with the ship's heat shield. Mary, who's watching the mission at home on TV, immediately figures out what's wrong and calls NASA, telling them to order Glenn to keep his retro pack in place (whatever that means) to keep the heat shield in place. Glenn does so and the ship successfully lands in the ocean. Huzzah!

After the Friendship 7 mission, Vivian finally presents Dorothy with a promotion to supervisor, calling her "MRS. Vaughn" for the first time ever. Mary gets her degree and becomes a NASA engineer. 

Katherine's department is laid off, but she's reassigned to the Analysis and Computation Division. We're told that she calculated orbits for the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 moon missions, and was awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2015. She's currently retired and still alive at ninety six (!), and still married to Jim Johnson.

• The movie begins with a flashback to 1926, where we see Young Katherine Goble sitting in a school hallway as she stares at a leaded glass window.

Already a math whiz, she identifies various geometric shapes (such as isosceles triangles, trapezoids, etc.) in the window, and they actually jump out at her though the magic of CGI. 

I thought that was a cool visual way to show how her mathematical mind viewed the world, and assumed they'd do the same thing later when she was writing complicated formulas on a gigantic blackboard. Nope! Apparently she must have grown out of her animated geometry phase as she got older (or more likely, the movie couldn't afford more CGI scenes).

• In 1961, Dorothy, Mary and Katherine are carpooling to work when their car breaks down. Dorothy examines the engine and says it's a bad starter.

OK, I know little or nothing about cars, but even I realize that doesn't make any sense. If the car's already running, a bad starter won't make it stop.

Dorothy then fixes the engine by somehow using a screwdriver to short something out and "bypass the starter," which is even more nonsensical.

By the way, at the end of the workday, Dorothy has no trouble starting up her car. I guess the faulty starter must have fixed itself.

• The movie does a pretty good job recreating the look and fashions of the early 1960s (as far as I can tell). There are a few glitches here or there, but for the most part it felt pretty authentic.

I'm betting that all the period cars used in the film came from some sort of vintage auto club. Every single car in the film is impossibly immaculate— not a scratch, dent, smudge or speck of dirt anywhere in sight. In fact the cars are almost comically pristine, as if they rolled off the assembly line on the day of filming.

Hilariously, at one point Mary actually calls Dorothy's perfectly preserved and restored car a piece of junk!

• The lady mathematicians at NASA are all referred to as "computers." This sounds pretty demeaning to us today, as it makes them sound like pieces of equipment. 

No disrespect was intended by the name though— that's just what their job was called. They "computed" numbers and equations, hence they were called computers! It's like saying "plumbers" or "bakers."

• I just realized that for the past several decades I've been saying "Kristen Dunst" instead of "Kirsten Dunst." Whoops!

• Oprah Winfrey was briefly considered for a part in the film, presumably as Dorothy Vaughn. Let's all bow are heads, hold up our popcorn boxes and thank the Movie Gods that didn't came to pass. 

• You may be wondering why, if everyone at NASA was so uncomfortable around "colored" people, they hired them in the first place? Good question!

It had to do with WWII. When the U.S. entered the war, tens of thousands of male workers were drafted and shipped overseas to fight. This lead to a serious labor shortage in the defense industry. President Roosevelt issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination in the workplace, and NACA (the precursor of NASA) began hiring black women to fill the empty positions.

• At the church picnic, Jim offends Katherine when he says he's surprised NASA lets women handle complicated math. She replies, "Yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it's not because we wear skirts. It's because we wear glasses."

Huh? What the heck does that mean? Is she telling him not to judge her by the stereotypical standards of a woman but as a stereotypical glasses-wearing science nerd? What a bizarre line. Seems to me like being judged by either standard would be a bad thing.

Hidden Figures uses a lot of archival NASA footage, particularly during the Friendship 7 launch in 1962. These fifty year old shots are easy to spot, as they're very grainy and often out of focus. They look like they've been cleaned up and remastered, but there's only so much you can do with ancient 16mm film.

In contrast, the film also uses brand new CGI footage of Friendship 7 flying through the upper atmosphere and orbiting Earth. It's very jarring when they cut between this old and new footage.

The only way around this would have been for the filmmakers to painstakingly recreate the launch footage, which no doubt would have added another five or ten million dollars to the budget. 

• There's some major league plot trickery going on in the scene in which Katherine recalculates John Glenn's orbit. Al sends one of his aides to find Katherine, who's moping in Dorothy's department. The aide hands her the data and she calculates the new orbit while he waits. 

When she's done, the aide grabs her by the arm and the two of them run across the campus to the control center. The aide takes Katherine's calculations, enters the control room and shuts her out. She stands looking dejected for a few seconds, then starts walking slump-shouldered down the hall.

Suddenly Al sticks his head out of the control room door and tells Katherine to get her butt in there with him, as the soundtrack triumphantly soars.

OK, so it makes for an emotionally satisfying scene, but... why the hell was she outside the control room in the first place? Once she recalculated the orbit, the aide could have simply grabbed the notebook from her and delivered it to Al himself. There was absolutely no reason for him to bring Katherine back with him.

Obviously he brought her back with him so the film could fake us out and make it look like she'd been snubbed once again, and then pull a surprise switcheroo and include her. It's classic movie manipulation.

• As I said earlier, I generally don't like biopics because they almost always rewrite history and fabricate events to punch up the story. As such, most biopics contain far more fiction than fact. Hidden Figures takes this practice to a new, and in my opinion, unfair extreme.

For example, one of the biggest parts of the movie involves Katherine Johnson being forced to constantly run half a mile across the NASA campus just to find a "colored only" restroom. This is such an important sequence that they even include it in the trailer! I cannot emphasize this enough— this is a MAJOR part of the film, and they devote a good twenty minutes of the runtime to her problems finding a place to pee.

There's just one problemit never actually happened! 

The real Katherine Johnson said she regularly used any bathroom she liked at NASA, unaware they were segregated. According to her, several years after she'd been working there a co-worker confronted her about her choice of restrooms, but she simply ignored them, went about her business and that was the end of it.

It's obvious the filmmakers fabricated this incident to highlight the problems Katherine faced on a daily basis due to her race. But it makes her white co-workers, and NASA itself, look like a den of cross-burning racists, when that simply wasn't the case. 

Does it matter if this incident was true or not? I think it does. Now there's gonna be a whole generation of kids out there who hate NASA because they wouldn't let Katherine Johnson pee, even though she was free to squat wherever she wanted. If you're gonna label an entire group racist, at least get the facts straight. It's one thing for a biopic to fudge a fact or two to make the story flow better. It's quite another to invent racism where none existed just so the movie can make its point. 

I have no doubt there was some racism going on at NASA in the early 1960s (heck, there's probably still some now). So show THOSE incidents. Don't make up even more!

Note that I'm in no way suggesting Katherine Johnson NEVER had to deal with racism during her career. Far from it. I'm just saying in this particular instance, it didn't happen.

• Here's a few of the other events that Hidden Figures got right and wrong:

In The Movie: Katherine Johnson's boss in the Flight Research Division is Al Harrison.
In Reality: The filmmaker's couldn't get permission to use the name of Johnson's real-life  boss, so Harrison is a composite of several different NASA directors.

In The Movie: Jim Parsons plays NASA Engineer Paul Stafford, who does everything in his power to hold Katherine back, including treating her like a secretary, omitting her name from reports and refusing to let her attend briefings.
In Reality: Stafford didn't actually exist. He was created to represent the general racist and sexist attitudes of the time (that according to Katherine Johnson herself, weren't prevalent at NASA).

In The Movie: Kirsten Dunst plays the condescending and stealthily racist Vivian Mitchell, the supervisor over all the women working at Langley.
In Reality: Mitchell didn't actually exist. Like Paul Stafford, she was created simply because every movie needs a villain.

In The Movie: Dorothy Vaughn argues with Vivian Mitchell that she's already doing the work of a supervisor, but without the title or the added pay. Vivian refuses to promote her. Dorothy perseveres and eventually becomes NASA's first black supervisor in 1961.
In Reality: True! Well, sort of. Dorothy Vaughn really was NASA's first black supervisor, but it happened in 1948, five years before Katherine Johnson started working there (when NASA was still called NACA). The filmmakers fiddled with Dorothy's timeline here so she could achieve her victory alongside Katherine.

In The Movie: In order to become an engineer, Mary Jackson petitions a judge to allow her to attend an all-white school. The judge grants her request, she takes the classes and becomes an engineer.
In Reality: This all really happened, but Mary was promoted to engineer in 1958, three years before the movie takes place. Again, they changed the timeline so the three main characters could all succeed together.

In The Movie: When Katherine enters the Flight Research Division, one of the white male engineers hands her a full trash can, thinking she's the janitor.
In Reality: This never happened, and was completely fabricated by the movie to manipulate the audience into sympathizing with Katherine.

In The Movie: Katheryn Johnson is discriminated against by her white co-workers, both for her race and her sex.
In Reality: 
Most of the racism displayed by her NASA co-workers is largely made up. According to the real Katherine Johnson, "I didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it." 

Note that the depiction of racial discrimination the characters experienced outside NASA was very real though, and quite accurate.

In The Movie: When Al Harrison finds out Katherine's never at her desk because she has to run half a mile to pee. He then takes a crowbar and tears down the segregated signs from all the restrooms, saying they don't have time for such foolishness. 
In Reality: As you might have guessed, this event never happened. It was written solely to give Katherine a personal victory and manipulate the audience.

In The Movie: Katherine asks to attend the daily space program briefings, since her job depends on the vital information. Her request is continually denied by Paul Stafford, until her boss Al Harrison finally allows her to attend.
In Reality: This sort of happened, but not quite the way the movie depicts it. Katherine Johnson says, "I asked permission to go and they said, 'Well, the girls don't usually go,' and I said, 'Well, is there a law?' They said, 'No.' Then my boss said, 'Let her go.' And I began attending the briefings."

In The Movie: Katherine Johnson is raising her three daughters alone (with help from her mother) after the death of her husband.
In Reality: This is true. Katherine's first husband James Goble died in 1956. She promised him she'd make sure their three daughters attended college.

In The Movie: NASA employees have a meet & greet with several astronauts, including John Glenn. He makes a point to say hello to everyone, even the colored computers.
In Reality: This one's sort of true, as Katherine actually did meet John Glenn, but not quite the way it's depicted in the movie. I'm willing to give 'em this one though.

In The Movie: The math to bring John Glenn safely back to Earth didn't exist until Katherine figured it out.
In Reality: This is true. According to the real Katherine Johnson: "When John Glenn was to be the first astronaut to go up into the atmosphere and come back, and they wanted him to come back in a special place, and that was what I did, I computed his trajectory. From then on, any time they were going to compute trajectories, they were given mostly, all of them to my branch, and I did most of the work on those by hand."

In The Movie: Friendship 7 encounters problems with its orbital trajectory, and John Glenn asks for "the smart girl"– aka Katherine Johnson– to figure it out.

In Reality: This is true. In fact the scene is taken almost verbatim from the official transcript.

Hidden Figures is the mostly true story of a real-life NASA pioneer, that's filled with engaging characters and features top notch performances. It's also a very nice and non-confrontational film, even when it's trying to make a point about bigotry. Like most biopics, it plays fast and loose with certain facts, fabricating racial incidents where none actually existed just to make its point, which dragged down my score a bit. Despite this, it's an enjoyable film that's worth seeing. I give it a B.


  1. Having not seen the movie yet, I'm curious your thoughts on its nomination for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

  2. I just saw today that it'd been nominated for Best Picture. I don't know if it's BP material, but it's a good movie, and I enjoyed it. As I said in the review though, it's more of a character piece, as there's very little in the way of plot. I think there were better movies out there last year. It's worth a look though.


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