Hidden Figures: Great Story, Okay Movie

Hidden Figures Plot Summary:

Based on the true story of the unsung heroes who helped in the launch and return of John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) mission to orbit the Earth.  These three African-American women prove themselves mathematical and technical geniuses, playing an essential role at NASA, despite numerous hurdles and prejudice.

I’m going to be the sourpuss who says this movie is just “okay.”  Look, I get it.  It’s the ultimate feel good, crowd-pleasing, stand up and cheer film you’ll see all year.  My job is to evaluate this as a movie.  As a movie, it’s perfectly fine.  Competently well made.  I was entertained.  The acting was solid all around.  It’s a story that absolutely needs to be told.  Now it’s time for me to play the role of grumpy gus film critic.  The script was ordinary.  The story doesn’t mesh well.  But the most disappointing factor of all is there were too many underwhelming moments that should have been bigger.  That’s ultimately the film’s undoing.

As I said, this subject matter screams to be made into a movie.  The story of these three women as key players in the space race is interesting.  I don’t know that story.  There are definitely times where the movie is exceptionally effective.  Taraji P. Henson plays the central role of Katherine Johnson, who’s Will Hunting-esque when it comes to math equations.  When she gets called up to the big leagues in the super math room at NASA, her work is constantly interrupted when she has to use a bathroom on the other side of the facility.  The repetitiveness of this grabs you, but when it all comes to a boiling point, it feels anti-climactic.  While Henson nails the performance, the directing and writing let her down.  It felt rushed.

There were a lot of moments like this.  They should be big, but end with thuds.  Even though the three main characters struggle with the same persecutions, I like that they encountered different obstacles.  Despite all that, it still falls into the trap of repetition.  Henson butts heads with a jackass supervisor (Jim Parsons) she has to win over.  Octavia Spencer butts heads with a jackass supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) she has to win over.  An hour in, the film splintered off into three movies, but they were all the same.  The stories weren’t unique enough.

The best part Hidden Figures has going for it are the performances.  The three main actresses all have superb chemistry, which is apparent in the first scene.  While the writing is hit or miss, it opens strong.  You can never go wrong with Octavia Spencer.  She’s just a damn good actress.  Janelle Monae is also great as the fiery Mary Jackson.  She plays the most likable character of all time who you desperately root for.  The movie is also peppered with strong supporting players that include Kevin Costner as a no non-sense NASA program director, Powell with a great, charismatic turn as John Glenn, and Jim Parsons as a particularly nasty foil for Henson.  The movie also gives Henson a love interest played by Mahershala Ali (geez, he’s making the rounds this year).  Unfortunately, it adds absolutely nothing.  The movie would have been much better served if they just cut out this sub-plot.

Every time the movie focused on the women working through problems at NASA and showing their true genius, I was really into it.  When the movie veered away from NASA, it felt overwhelmingly cliché.  Jackson’s husband (Aldis Hodge) could have been effective as the frustrated character who thinks things will never change, but his dialogue and speeches are cut and pasted from 900 other movies.  Whenever the issue of race came up at the workplace, that’s when the movie was most effective because it meshed well with the primary story.

I didn’t love this film, but it’s one I’d safely recommend to anyone.  As I said, it’s a crowd-pleaser.  It very much reminds me of Remember the Titans.  While that film isn’t particularly strong, it’s ridiculously likable.  That’s Hidden Figures.  While there’s a few strong moments, it was paced way too slowly, and had that dreaded generic feel at times.  It’s perfectly fine, but a Best Picture Oscar contender?  Let’s calm down.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Slightly Better than “Meh”)  

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow’s fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.