Oscars 2017 Retrospective: Hidden Figures

This week we take a look at another of the 2017 Oscar’s fantastic Best Picture nominees, ‘Hidden Figures’. The film, directed by Theodore Melfi, is a direct adaption of the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly and presents the titular ‘Hidden Figures’ behind NASA’s space race. These are woman who for far too long were not given the exposure and acknowledgment they deserved. America seemingly much preferring the narrative where it was white males who achieved history, not the African-American Women who deserved their due credit. This is an inspirational tale, and Alison Schroeder’s fantastic screenplay is key in translating this onto the screen. The feeling of elation you get with every seemingly minor victory, right up until each of the three leads achieves their goals, is exhilarating and uplifting and an emotion which the movie perfectly manages. One way this is achieved is the fact that at no point does Schroeder’s script try and force an unnecessary wedge between our three leads.
The core three members of the cast the movie is based on, the ‘Hidden Figures’, are all outstanding in their own roles within the movie. Taraji P. Henson is undoubtedly the lead and based on this performance we will be seeing her as the lead in great movies for many years to come. She steals the show with consummate ease, managing to overpower great actors such as Kevin Costner and Mahershala Ali in scene after scene. The entire emotional core of the movie rests on her shoulders, a responsibility she manages to perfection. Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe play equally pivotal roles yet share far less of the screen time, and I would’ve actually loved to see more of them. Janelle Monáe specifically is an actress who I knew little of before this movie, but afterwards I am desperately excited to see exactly where she will go next.
No movie of this size however can be successful without a stellar supporting cast and the ensemble cast is perhaps the most talented of any of the Best Picture nominees. When a movie can afford to have Mahershala Ali in a role which barely exceeds five minutes of screen time, when it can have Kirsten Dunst giving one of her best and most nuanced performances since her Spider Man years, when it can have Kevin Costner give such a fantastic performance when he essentially only exists for Henson’s character to play off of, that’s when you know it is going to be special. Surprisingly actually given my feelings going in, I genuinely have to give some major credit to Jim Parson’s performance. The actor has seemed to be reluctant to attempt to deviate from his character on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ which he became famous for, yet this movie sees an extreme departure for him. Excluding the obvious scientist comparison, the man he plays could not be more different from ‘Sheldon’ and so I hope to see him continue to break the typecasting trap he initially fell into.
As with any movies I do have a few gripes, not things that I feel are particularly wrong with the movie but simply things I feel would have improved my enjoyment of it. Firstly, there are a few plotlines in this movie which do not do a great deal to improve the characters or further the plot and should have either been expanded upon or cut out. Though I loved his performance, as I always do with this actor, Mahershala Ali’s role was fairly superfluous and inconsequential. I would’ve actually have loved to see instead more of the dynamic between Monáe’s character and her husband played by Aldis Hodge. Both are supremely talented up and comers and what little we saw of their relationship was fascinating to me, albeit we are shown so little I was simply left wanting more of the two. My only other real complaint is that with the exception of a couple of shots I wouldn’t say the movie is particularly visually interesting. The cinematography is quite bland and by the numbers, and though nothing stands out specifically as being poor per say, it just is played incredibly safe. Perhaps a different director of photography would’ve brought a more specific vision to the project, but again this is a very minor gripe as it wasn’t overly noticeable till I looked back on what could’ve been improved.

Where the cinematography fell down however, in a subtle way the music and score to this movie excelled. The music was done by Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams, an incredibly odd pairing yet the two actually combine to complement one another quite well. Hans Zimmer ensure that the moments where heart or emotion are the requirement he hits those beats perfectly. The tensest moment in the movie however is not plagued by some unnecessary and distracting build of music as so many more basic movies would. In making a film, the decision to have an absence of music or sound is just as conscious and necessary a decision as the presence of it, and Zimmer takes a back seat and instead leaves a lengthy and uncomfortable silence which stays with and deeply affects the viewer. As previously mentioned however the music was a collaboration and Pharrell’s influence is marked and vital to differentiating ‘Hidden Figures’ from the rest of the Best Picture nominees. What makes ‘Hidden Figures’ so different is that at its core, despite its serious and heartfelt subject matter, it is a fun movie. Say what you want about Pharrell and his music, “fun” is undoubtedly the first compliment anyone would give to it, and he is vital in lending this tone to the movie. Though this may not be the most technical of terms, it is a characteristic of a successful movie overlooked far too often and one ‘Hidden Figures’ should be applauded for trying to achieve.
On the whole, I came into Hidden Figures not expecting to enjoy it anywhere near as much as I did. Though I knew the importance of the story and understood its need to be told, I had a bias towards other movies I felt should’ve achieved nominations, such as Sing Street or Green Room. This seemed the easy target, the least “Oscar” like of all the Oscar movies. Yet in watching it I finally realised how unintelligent my reasoning was, and how uninformed my argument was. This movie was deserved of its place in the spotlight, and is one of my favourites so far. Yes, perhaps on a technical level there may have been more deserving films in 2017, but few had more heart and a more crucial story which had to be told.

Written by: Michael Slavin – @michaelslavin98 on Twitter

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