If our calculations have been correct in the past, films like Hidden Figures should have absolutely no trouble when it comes to meeting Uncle Oscar come award season. A drama based on a chapter in history that reads eerily familiar to the one we’re telling now should speak volumes in its statement, but struggles to do so due to key elements that don’t quite add up.
The prime figure in all of this is Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson; one of the many great African-American minds that played their part for NASA in the space race of the 1960s. With the Russians lapping them ever so slightly, the bunch of proud old geezers working the equations to get U.S. astronauts to the stars and back again were struggling, leading to Johnson to work the numbers instead, much to their reluctance. Forced to battle against the divide and inequality that stretched from her work and across the country, Johnson endured the unthinkable so that man could do the impossible. Following from his amusingly average Bill Murray-vehicle, St. Vincent, Hidden Figures is undoubtedly a story that’s levels above his earlier project and it shows.
Though his efforts are admirable, the steady pace and by the book plot points mean that you really don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see where Hidden Figures is going, something that is only magnified by Henson in a role that doesn’t seem to sit right. Having played supporting characters up until now, the films lead continues to play Johnson like she isn’t one. More of a caricature than a believable character, this invaluable addition to NASA flits through the film, straightening up her glasses and tip toeing through the segregation that surrounds her until she has her stand out snapping moment. Squaring up to the higher-ups and everyone else in the room, the impact would’ve hit a lot harder had Henson not constructed such a timid flower that fails to bloom.
Even if its main engine isn’t firing, Hidden Figures has some strong enough back ups to keep the attention going. Having already nabbed an Oscar for The Help, chances are she could and should do the same for this as well. As Deborah, Spencer brings an equally reserved but all the more relatable role to life and almost becomes more compelling as a result. Facing off against Kirsten Dunst’s higher up as well stuck up librarians who break silence when she’s caught in the whites only section, you can see the melting pot begin to boil and you can fully understand why. The same can be said for Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, who’s more ignited than the other girls and isn’t afraid to bring the heat because of it, either.
Massive credit must also fall on Kevin Costner as Johnson’s boss, Al Harrison; a gum-chewing no-nonsense leader that suits the actor down to the ground. Seasoned as a big screen legend, he’s finally fitting into the roles of older, grumpier, almost Clint-like roles that he’s perfect for now and brings a weight to the screen when he’s in it.
Even with added Costner and two starlets working with as much as they can, there’s still not enough there to make Hidden Figures a film truly worth recognising. Henson has potential – it’s in fleeting moments – but that’s not enough to break the stratosphere. Our advice is to give the math a second look.