A PG MOVIE THAT'S LIVE ACTION! Stop the presses! This movie is PG! I was even ready for PG-13. They say "damn" a lot, which made it weird with the kiddos. But PG is PG! I feel warm inside...
DIRECTOR: Theodore Melfi
It's been a while since I've written. Even worse, it's been a while since I watched this movie, so I'm reviewing it with a bit of staleness on it. In the past few weeks, I found out that I have a serious back issue (Not Amazing Spider-Man # 1, but more of spinal pain) and have started grad school. Grad school homework comes first to this website, so I'm going to have to slow it down. No more "review-per-day" attitude. But if I get a chance to update, I will.
I keep coming back to the same idea time and again with the historical drama involving race. It doesn't matter if it is fiction or nonfiction. (Okay, it kind of helps, but the point will still be the same.) This is a true story and, boy, is it an important story. I just wonder again who this movie is aimed at. What audience gleans the most from this film? In an idea world, African American girls should be eating this movie up. That's what should be happening and I really hope that it is. This movie is inspirational as heck for both demographics and I'm sure that's how it was marketed. I still get that the vibe of these movies is to make white people proud of the strides that they have made in terms of racism and sexism. If the goal of storytelling is to explain how a protagonist changes over the course of a story, the people who change their views are the white people. Now, this is because of the direct intervention of the women in this story, but the major inspirational moments are when SPOILERS a white guy takes a sledgehammer to a "Colored Women Only" bathroom sign and when an African American woman changes a white technician's mind that she is better at running this computer than she is. A similar scene? The scene where Octavia Spencer convinces Kirsten Dunst to give her the job. Again, these change moments are on the part of the secondary characters, not the protagonists. The message of the film is to endure and I just wonder who is watching this movie. "Endurance" and "perseverance" are important ideas that need to be communicated, but I just get the feeling that the movie is meant to appeal to the enlightened, who can pat themselves on the back for being so forward thinking.
The movie itself is very good. It takes the few things I liked out of A Beautiful Mind and then applies that to Apollo 13 under the banner of racism. I don't know what it is that speaks to our culture so much when we see people crazy smart on screen. When Katherine Johnson writes equations on the board, I have no idea what she is saying. Yet, the emotional connection is there. Perhaps it is a room full of white men looking at her work agape that gives us the reality of the moment. Because there are a lot of scenes where Johnson is writing up on a chalkboard. The story, itself, is very simple in that way. Katherine Johnson is the smartest person in the room and no one is willing to admit that until they grow enough to allow that to become a possibility. The movie is mostly about the frustration that comes from people hindering her growth. Add to that her two friends who are in similar situations at NASA. Very smart women who don't get a break because they are black and female. It is an extremely heartbreaking situation that needs to be told every so often. The biggest frustration I have about this movie is that it doesn't really cover ground that hasn't been covered. It is important that we keep getting reminders of our past so we don't recreate it, but I wish that there was something new about this movie.
I know it didn't get much play at the Academy Awards mainly because everything in this movie has been seen before. It does feel a little Oscar-baitish. I do find it funny that the definition of Oscar Bait is when a movie is extremely safe. It is usually the unique movies that really win the Oscars, so it is odd that we keep getting movies that look like they were shot by the same cinematographer as Forrest Gump. There is a look to a movie when it is filmed in the Civil Rights Era. Honestly, if it came down to it, I could probably make a template about how a Civil Rights Era feel good movie is supposed to look and sound. Hidden Figures kind of hits all of those points. This even comes down to the character development as well. (I KNOW! It's a true story. Doesn't mean that we have to beat-by-beat the formula.) I think the most telling element of how safe this movie was comes from the relationship formed with Mahershala Ali's character being shoehorned into the movie. It is this bit of comedy that the film needs to have to keep the characters real. He is in the movie almost to simply serve the formula. He really isn't a well developed character because he doesn't need to be in this movie. Rather, he's there so Katherine can have a sounding board to vent her frustrations about her workplace. He also provides context to how women were treated both inside and outside of the community. He's one character, but there are many moments like this. The movie needs these characters to advance the plot and establish context, but there is little emotional investment with these characters. Really, the heart of the film is with the three women.
The three women make the movie. They are wonderfully cast, although the inclusion of Janelle Monae makes it seem somewhat implausible. Sorry, she's too pretty for reality. The fact that no one is really commenting on her good looks is very weird to me. Again, this exists in Hollywood. Really, everyone is too good looking and symmetrical, but she is the "hot one" that no one really seems to comment on. For being three friends with similar situations, the three girls rarely interact and that is a bit odd. The three stories are all very interesting and I find it bizarre that the movie picks one of the three girls as the protagonist. But the three women really have great chemistry together for the few times that they share the screen together. The weirder casting choices involved Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, who almost seem to be playing shells of real people. These characters hit on all of the typical beats of bigotry, which is all well and good, but I think there is a deeper version of those characters that could be portrayed. Kevin Costner, whom I normally loathe, did an okay job here. I don't know if I could ever say that he knocked it out of the park because his intentions and character arc is very weird. He's described by all of his co-workers as being closed off and unapproachable, but he never really sells that. He's more of a dude who is committed to his job and the success of the program. That's not the Scrooge character that is described by the other characters in the movie. I know that seems nit-picky, but I like to follow the rules established by the movie. I don't know if it is Costner who is messing up on that front or the director and the choices going on, but I noticed it. But normally Costner gets under my skin for how bad he is. He's not awful here. He's actually a moderately compelling character if it wasn't for the beats that felt Hollywood-y. (Again, I'm talking about a sledgehammer to the restroom sign. Sledgehammers are subtle.)
It sounds like I'm ripping this movie a new one and I don't think it was bad by any means. I actually enjoyed watching it, but I generally have a problem with these kinds of movies. I want something daring and challenging. This never really offered this. I think I'd have the same opinion of Apollo 13 if I watched it for the first time today. There's an important message here, but is that message for everyone or just the people that want to feel better about the progress in this country. I believe a movie should force you to get out your seat and fight for change. I don't see this movie stirring up a frenzy. But it could be great for the STEM movement, so who knows? Maybe I'm full of garbage.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.