Wednesday, February 1, 2017

hidden figures

Director Theodore Melfi (who did 2014's St. Vincent) has a gristly, old-school Brooklyn accent and a penchant for optimism. "I hope this movie shows the world that we are only gonna make it and achieve greatness together," he says, "Nothing divided stands, that’s common sense. I’m hoping that this movie is that."

I slipped into a packed Manhattan theater to see Figures on the weekend of a sickening executive order banning immigrants. Melfi's portrayal, co-scripted by Allison Schroeder, from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, has that swept-up, feel-good aura--a Hollywood-ish glean over tough issues which is resonating in receipts in a time of division and squalls of bad news (especially for progressives). The story follows three black women who worked in Langley, Virginia for NASA, particularly focusing upon their roles in assisting the 1962 launch of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth.

With a wizardly command of numbers, Katherine Gobel (played with immense spirit and heart by Taraji P. Henson) is given the job of "the computer," a clerical, but vital, position of doing and reviewing calculations, in an all-white male Space Task Group. Even though the missions of NASA are rigorous and forward-looking, the conditions within are mired in racism and segregation. The film portrays Gobel and her colleague friends, Dorothy Vaughn (the always reliable, wholly natural Octavia Spencer) and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, who between this and Moonlight, has etched out two great supporting turns in 2016) as quick-minded geniuses with their own inner stresses who always display utmost excellence and are constantly thwarted with adversity. There is some unfortunate white-washing in the flick, mostly through fictional situations involving Kevin Costner (who acts with unpredictable, tremendous ease), but the cast is just so electric, the script snappy, and the struggles so specifically drawn that it's a difficult film not to feel something from. The aesthetics are well-helmed: the precise costuming from Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, the shiny finned cars and Pharrell's excellent track "Runnin'," which booms over Gobel's wrenching, high heel hustles to the far-away non-white women's restroom, adds to the rich, sometimes stultifying atmosphere. It helps too that we feel the film primarily through the point of view of its trio rather than white characters which also makes the ending so undeniably moving; these women, which history books have ignored, are finally given due through the uniting power of a crowdpleaser. ***

-Jeffery Berg

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