Monday, July 17, 2017

Hidden Figures (2016): The First Movie Review On This Blog In Basically Forever

"There are twenty bright, highly capable Negro women in the west computing group, and we're proud to be doing our part for the country. So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it's not because we wear skirts. It's because we wear glasses."
~Katherine Goble

The average lifespan of a raccoon in the wild is about three years, and I was going to open this post by saying that I haven't written a movie review in a coon's age, but then I thought that was probably a slight exaggeration.

In reality it's been two years and eleven months.  Um. Ahem.  (Yeah, even I couldn't believe it's been that long. I had to go back and check. And re-check.) Saving Mr. Banks was the last movie I reviewed on this blog, and if you feel like refreshing your memory, you can go here. For what it's worth, I did have a few drafts lying around that I poked at from time to time, but... yeah. I don't have much of an excuse beyond the general "well, life is busy!" Sure, life is busy. But if you want to write, you have to make time to write. 

(...I may make my next post an update on various things that have made my life busy lately, by the way.  If anyone would care to read about that. I have no intention of shoving my personal life down your throat, but I know I get curious about the lives of people whose blogs I read, so if you would find such a thing interesting, please give me a shout in the comments, because I do have a few updates that may be of interest.)

Oh, and when I started writing this post, I had also been sick for the last week and today {that is, the day I started this... in May... heh...} I am actually well enough to sit up and look at a laptop, but not well enough to go to work, and a blog post felt like a good idea since my brain is beginning to feel like little gray cells again, and not oatmeal. 

So here I am, writing about a movie that I actually saw on the big screen. WILL WONDERS NEVER CEASE.

Hidden Figures does not quiiiiiiite fit the bill of fare around here. It's a stretch to call it a period drama - my grandparents are around the ages of the characters in the film, give or take a few years, and some of the real women on whom the film was based are still alive today.  But there are pencil skirts and long-finned Cadillacs and an IBM computer that takes up an entire room... which means the movie portrays another world in the past, to some degree, so I'm letting it slide on my Historical Films radar.  (Not that that radar is particularly strict to begin with... I have a half-finished review of Sherlock's The Abominable Bride in my drafts, too. Ahem.) However, it's my blog, and my rules, and blah blah.

So here we go.  (Spoilers GALORE. Although if you didn't at least vaguely know that John Glenn successfully orbited the Earth in 1962 then maybe you need to go to back to school and stop reading movie reviews.) 

I knew I was going to love this movie from the very first present-day scene. (The opening with Katherine as a small child being a math whiz was fun, and set a good backdrop, but the movie didn't really get going until the story catapulted us into 1961.)  There were several factors - Mary's clothes. Mary's sass. Katherine and Dorothy's comebacks and bed-bath-and-beyond-done-ness with Mary's sass. Oh, and my dream car. Because yeah, that car of Dorothy's has been my dream car for YEARS. That may have been a silly reason to fall in love with the movie so quickly (especially considering I'm really not a car person... like, at ALL) but humans are weird creatures and reactions are visceral and sometimes you just KNOW you're gonna like something, you know? 

(This is a behind-the-scenes photo but I couldn't find another good shot with the car in it. :P)

Katherine Goble was one of those people I just knew I was going to like.  She's patient, she gets the job done, she deals with miles upon miles of setbacks and she just keeps pushing forward.  When she gets a position with Mr. Harrison's team, checking code for other mathematicians, and she puts her name alongside of Paul Stafford's report (rightly so, because she did just as much work as he does), he gets annoyed and refuses to let her take credit for the work she did.  And yet the next time she puts her name back again. And again. And the next time.  And every time he takes it off, destroys the cover sheet, tells her to do it over, and she doesn't get mad - she just puts her name right back the next time, and I loved that.  It's a simple gesture that says, "I know my work matters, and I know that you don't believe that it matters, but that doesn't change the fact that it does matter, and I will keep right on saying that just as long as you keep erasing it." 

Katherine isn't one to immediately speak her mind the way Mary is (getting to Mary in a second), but she makes her voice heard when it needs to be heard.  The scene where she breaks down and loses her temper at Harrison over not having access to a ladies' room is one of the most well-played scenes in the whole movie, and the following scene where a chastened Harrison knocks off the segregation signs with a crowbar and tells the dumbstruck crowd, "Here at NASA, we all pee the same color," is one of the most satisfying.  (Yeah, you probably never thought you'd see that word on this blog, but guess what, it's in the movie, and though I try to be reasonably ladylike around here, I do not skip over a good pithy statement when I see one.)

One of the things I really liked about the movie's portrayal of Katherine is that it shows her first and foremost as a mathematician.  She is also a mother, and she also has a romance (that plays out in a very lovely way and I was delighted to find that it ended very happily in real life as well), but the story is not about Katherine's struggle to balance work and home life and find her real place in the world as a working mom. She has a job, about which she's very passionate, with which she supports her three girls (and presumably her mother, who doesn't seem to work outside the home as she appears to be in her upper 70's). End of story.  When one of her daughters brings up the subject of Katherine coming home late, she simply says, matter-of-factly, that she has to be both mama and daddy since their daddy's in heaven, and that's all there is to it. And while a movie based solely on Katherine's career is not quite what this is (getting to the romantical part in a moment), I appreciated the fact that the focus wasn't detracted from the work at hand by a spin-off on the whole working-single-mother thing. (Although if someone DOES want to make a spin-off of this movie, about Katherine's personal life, I would totally watch that.) 

I was not a fan of Jim Johnson's character at first, but he definitely grew on me. I was really happy to see how he interacted with Katherine's daughters and with Katherine herself in a relatively short space of time (that is, screen time), and the proposal scene was... well, adorableness. I'm already spoiling things right and left for anyone who hasn't seen the movie yet, but I also appreciated that the romance wasn't made the focal point of the movie.  It was a sweet side note, and historically accurate since Katherine Goble really DID marry Jim Johnson (and they were married for fifty-some years!), but it wasn't the point of the movie and I was pleased by the fact that the filmmakers didn't try to divert attention from the real story at hand with a sugar-coated Hollywood romance.

Quick note on Katherine's clothes--  because clothes are my Thing and you know I couldn't *not* talk about them-- aaaaaaaah, if it weren't for the Cold War and communism and racism and sexism and lack of central air-conditioning, what I wouldn't GIVE to live in the fifties/early sixties! I loved how her styles really set her apart from the other mathematicians, aside from her obvious gender and ethnicity - the pops of color she brought to that largely black-and-white-and-grey room were very visually appealing, and I enjoyed that. I basically just want all of her dresses. Yes? Yes. Please and thank you.

Moving on to Mary.

"I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can't do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can't change the color of my skin. So I have no choice, but to be the first, which I can't do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you gonna hear today, which one is gonna matter hundred years from now? Which one is gonna make you the first?"
~Mary Jackson

The only thing that kept Mary from being my favorite character in the movie was the fact of Katherine's existence. Seriously, if it hadn't been for Katherine Mary would have been my #1. She's hilarious, she's snarky, she gets stuff done, she has brilliant fashion sense and she's not afraid of anything.  I loved how she was constantly dressed in bright colors and sharp, clean-cut styles - it went a long way towards pinpointing her vibrant, edgy personality.

I wish Karl Zielinski, the older engineer who mentored Mary at the beginning of her assignment on the test rockets, had had a larger role in the movie, because I'd be very interested to know more of his story.  This exchange between them after Mary had identified the air-resistance problem with the wind tunnel is one of my favorites:
"Mary, a person with an engineer's mind should be an engineer. You can't be a computer the rest of your life."
"Mr. Zielinski, I'm a negro woman. I'm not gonna entertain the impossible."
"And I'm a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp. Now I'm standing beneath a spaceship that's going to carry an astronaut to the stars. I think we can say we are living the impossible. Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?"
"I wouldn't have to. I'd already be one."

And then... she more than entertained the impossible. She went and did it. Because she is awesome.

We didn't see quite as much of Mary's relationship with her husband Levi as we did of Katherine and Jim, but I was pleasantly surprised by the realness in the portrayal of their marriage.  Again, I was afraid that we'd be treated to an angsty wrist-on-forehead agonizing on Mary's part - WHICH is more IMPORTANT? her HUSBAND and CHILDREN or her CAREER? and he will NEVER BE suPPORTIVE?!?!?!?!

While such things certainly have happened, that didn't seem to be the case with Mary and Levi, and I was happy that the movie chose to show his initial opposition to her court case (pleading her right to take night classes at the high school to become an engineer) as only the first step in their story.  By the end, he was right there beside her, and she succeeded with his full support. Whether this is actually historically accurate or not (I did buy the book on which the movie is based, and am anxious to start it soon!), it was a nice thing to see. The filmmakers could easily have set up an ending in which Mary chose the scientific path despite Levi's protests (a "nevertheless, she persisted" type of situation that necessitated her persistence past her loved ones as well as the bigotry of strangers), which would have been somewhat depressing, but instead their mutual desire to see justice served and prove wrong the people who wanted to push them back made for a really satisfying ending.

Dorothy Vaughan had a little less screen time than the other two, I thought, and perhaps that was part of what made me a little less interested in her.  Her story is still intriguing, and her quiet push for the right, though not as sassy as Mary's or bold as Katherine's way of making their voices heard, is still inspiring. I'd previously seen Octavia Spencer in a more firecracker-type role, as Minny Jackson in The Help, but I think I liked Dorothy's character almost as much. 

I felt Dorothy's relationship with Vivian Mitchell (little Amy March, all grown up!), though somewhat fictionalized (both Mrs. Mitchell and Paul Stafford were composite characters, drawn from several different people, and did not have actual real-life counterparts), hit pretty close to home even for today. "Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y'all," Vivian tells Dorothy near the end of the movie.  "I'm sure you believe that," Dorothy replies. It's a seemingly innocent and quick exchange, but it called up so many similar conversations I've had and observed even in my own rather sheltered, white, Northeastern existence.  Sometimes bigots and racists don't come dressed in flowing white robes and pointed hoods, or goose-stepping brown uniforms with skulls and crossbones. Sometimes they're people you know, people you respect, people who think that they don't harbor any hatred in their hearts toward people who aren't just like them.  And yet the truth comes out in little snippets here and there-- "it's just the way things are" and "I don't make the rules," easily translate to, "I don't have any problem with the rules, and would rather allow an injustice to continue because I don't want the bother of admitting that the injustice goes on because of people like me." 

I was happy that Vivian's character had softened a bit by the end, though - and in keeping with the movie's use of the main characters' first names (and my own practice in this post), I'm trying to refer to her by her first name, though Dorothy always respectfully calls her Mrs. Mitchell.  She doesn't have a choice in the matter, but by the end of the film Vivian has called her Mrs. Vaughan. I'll admit to a couple of fist-pumps when that happened. :D 

As mentioned above, Paul Stafford wasn't a real person either, but I think his addition to the movie was a good storytelling choice. Every fairy tale needs a good old-fashioned villain, and though this was real life and not a fairy tale, every story needs a well-defined antagonist to let us know why the main character does not get The One Thing They Are Searching For right off the bat.  Paul's character was stuffy, narcissistic, incredibly smart, and maybe just a little too perfectly opposed to everything Katherine wanted (anyone else think he was the mind behind the separate coffee pot?).  Perhaps the mish-mashing of various people who made Katherine's job difficult was a bit heavy-handed, and Paul came across as two-dimensional at times, but again, I can't really complain. Poetic justice was served at the end when Katherine finally put her name alongside his in a report and he brought her a cup of coffee, and I for one wasn't complaining.  It feels good to see that the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest would tell us that that is what Fiction means, but it's nice to think that it's what real life means sometimes too. 

Oddly enough, this movie isn't about writing.  There's a little nod to the creative/linguistic process in the recurring shot where Katherine types up Paul's notes and relentlessly adds her own name in the byline - she did just as much of the work as he did, and deserves credit for the effort it took to tie all their joint work into a cohesive and concise narrative.  Writing is important, and yet over and over Katherine's writing is discredited because Paul won't stand for a woman's name on the title page alongside his - but the movie still isn't about writing.

Yet I felt the familiar tug of writing-inspiration while watching the movie.  That's part of the highly subjective rubric by which I determine how much I liked a movie. Did I come away from it feeling a creative itch, a wanting-to-learn-more itch, a desire to imagine what could have happened next?  Hidden Figures is based on historical fact, and the blending of fiction and real events fascinated me (in much the same way that Saving Mr. Banks did a few years ago).  I love the way the story came to life through the imagination of the filmmakers - yes, they changed a few things to make the narrative flow more smoothly, but they brought a previously poorly-recognized scientific contribution to light for so many people who might not have known about it otherwise. That, to me, might be one of the highest forms of art achievable. I don't mean to deride fantasy or pure imagination, but in my mind, to take something real and make it seem more real with the power of the right words strung together... that's a feat. That's the kind of thing I want to write.

Someday, that is, when I actually take/find/squeeze out/contrive the time and discipline to sit down and write it. 

P.S. If you're interested in purchasing a copy of Hidden Figures on Amazon, you can do so below!


Livia Rachelle said...

You're back!!! I missed reading this blog. Please, please do update posts.

I've thought about reading the book. I'm not about the movie. Historical movies are kind of infuriating.

Naomi Pitts said...

Girl update posts yes please.
And have you made me want to see this movie even more? You have.
And I'm with you on how perfect the 50's-60's fashion was. :-)

Paula T. said...

I loved this movie. I've always loved your writing (so yes, more, please) so reading your review of this movie has me grinning from ear to ear!

About whether or not this could be called a "period drama" --
A) it happened before you were born
B) the world changes so quickly and so dramatically compared to earlier (olden?) times that I think our sense of what constitutes a "period" may have to change.
Ok I'm not expressing myself well here at all. *I* know what I mean. LOL

Welcome back.

Miss Woodhouse said...

I'M SO GLAD YOUR'E BACK!!! :D :D Your excellent posts have been very much missed!

I would love an update! I enjoy hearing what other people are up to as well

Hidden Figures was I got to see it in the theater also :D I've been hoping to do a review on it sometime soon.

Haha Mary's killer sass was awesome XD. And YESSS the part where Harrison knocks down the sign is great *claps* And all the clothes were wonderful!

Awwwwww the proposal ^.^ SO SWEEEEET *squeals delightedly, followed by a dramatic sigh*

Lovely review!! Again, so glad to see you back!

P.S. You can't have the car Amy, because I call it ;)

Melody said...

Oh, I think the populace would be VEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERY interested in hearing your life updates.

*exaggerated Mrs. Bennet wink*

Katie Hanna said...

Great review! I definitely want to watch this movie now :-) I agree, 50s and 60s fashions were lovely.

And I think you make an excellent point--it's really, really nice to have a movie about working women where the fact that they actually, y'know, work outside the home isn't the main source of conflict.

Life updates would be awesome! We can compare notes on the travails of adulting . . . *COUGHS HURRIEDLY*

Maribeth said...

Heyyyyyyyyyy, you're back!! This review was so good. I loved "Hidden Figures"; it was like "The Help" and "The Right Stuff" blended into a perfect package. And apparently Katherine Johnson and her husband still live in Hampton, Virginia! She'll be 100 next year.

I would love to read your "life update"--although I suspect I know at least some of the deets (*wink wink*)

Anonymous said...

Hey! You're still alive!

Ahem. :P

Yes, well, it HAS been awhile. I actually had to skim this review because I've been wanting to see this and our library has it and it's currently checked out so I'm waiting, but I don't want to spoil it!

So YES I WOULD LIKE A LIFE UPDATE. But I would even more like to see a review of The Abominable Bride. (That was one of my FAVOURIIITE Sherlock "episodes"/movies.)

~Miss Meg

Amaris said...

This was a great movie in my opinion! I love those historical dramas. :)
Great post!

Katherine said...

Yes! Yes! Blog more! Blog more!