Friday, January 6, 2017

Hidden Figures [2016]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (J. Hessenger) review

Hidden Figures [2016] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Theodore Melfi along with Allison Schroader based on the book [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Margot Lee Shetterly [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is a well-made, crowd-pleasing (if then _necessarily_ somewhat "dumbed down") story about three Mathematicians (!), AFRICAN-AMERICAN, WOMEN who helped the U.S. win the Space Race of the 1960s.

This is EXACTLY the kind of film that one wants kids (especially GIRLS and CHILDREN OF COLOR) to see.  This is EXACTLY the kind of film that inter-generational families (of all races) ought to see together. 

If this film does not get Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (!) and at least one of the three stars get a nomination for either Best Actress in a Leading Role (Taraji P. Henson) or Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Octavia Spencer or Janelle Monáe) then it will have been robbed and the Academy will deserve the #oscarssowhite disdain that it's received in recent years.  (What about Moonlight [2016]?  IMHO, it's not even close. Moonlight [2016] is a decent-enough edgy/starter indie-piece.  But to honor _it_ IN PLACE OF _SERIOUS_ films like Fences [2016] and the current film would actually be an _insult_ to serious / dedicated African Americans in the film-industry rather than some kind of renewed recognition of them).

So what's the current film about?  Well, it's about three African American women who grew-up in the still pre-Civil Rights Era (Jim Crow) South, who, as it happened in ethnic or racial community, happened to be very gifted in mathematics.  Readers note here have been at least three other films about intellectually gifted people-of-color that came-out recently -- The Man Who Knew Infinity [2015], Queen of  Katwe [2016] and El Jeremías [2016] -- all about the challenges (often loneliness and certainly lack-of-comprehension) faced by such pioneers.

Now perhaps if not for the advent of the space program (AND the nuclear arms race ... more on that later) these three would have been relegated to teaching advanced mathematics in, then necessarily, All-black Colleges in the South.  But since the same missiles that carried satellites and human carrying space-capsules into space / orbit could ALSO carry nuclear warheads, the U.S. was in a "fight for its life" as Al Harrison (played excellently, BTW, by Kevin Costner) one of NASA's directors at (then still segregated) Virginia's Langley Research Center noted. 

As such, the country needed _all_ its "best brains" (even from people-of-color _and_ a fair number of _immigrants_...).  So the three heroines of the story -- Katherine J. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) -- found themselves working in the (still segregated) COMPUTATIONAL (then literally called COMPUTER) pool, helping to calculate _still by hand_ possible trajectories for Space Flights.

Okay ... I promised _above_ to talk little bit about nuclear arms race here, something, that while not totally ignored, was largely _glossed-over_ in the film:  IN MY FIRST YEAR IN THE SEMINARY, when I did my first year of Theology with the Servites at the then Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, CA, I MET A FRANCISCAN SISTER / PROFESSOR THERE who IT TURNS OUT was ALSO ONE OF THOSE human "computers" in the early days of the space program.  She ALSO was recruited and believed initially that she was doing calculations "to help America get into space / the moon" ... and YET, _she_ came to realize that the vast majority of the calculations that she and her colleagues were doing were _not_ for calculating trajectories for spaceships or satellites BUT rather for ICBMS to be launched possibly against the Soviet Union.  SHE TOLD ME that THIS WAS THE REASON WHY SHE LEFT HER JOB IN THE SPACE PROGRAM and BECAME A NUN ... TO _ATONE_. 

The current film actually HINTS AT THIS DARK SECRET because it shows the main character Katherine being _repeatedly given_ HEAVILY REDACTED (BLACKENED OUT) work-sets from which she was supposed to do her calculations AND KATHERINE COMPLAINED telling her supervisors that she couldn't do her work effectively WITHOUT KNOWING everything that needed to be known about her calculations.

Still while in real life the three women in the story _almost certainly_ did calculations that were about _more_ than just "putting Americans in space," at least _some_ of their work was about space exploration -- putting John Glenn (played in the film by Glen Powell) into orbit, etc. 

Now dear Readers if this feels somewhat depressing -- the realization that much of what was done _under the cover of the Space Program_ was really preparing for (and hopefully detering...) Nuclear War -- remember that the Soviets were doing the EXACTLY THE SAME THING:

Indeed, the Russians arguably "lost" the Space Race NOT because they "couldn't go to the Moon," but because more financially strapped they _chose_ to not continue further with their manned program than near Earth space AS THERE WAS NO FURTHER MILITARY REASON TO GO BEYOND THAT:  The same Vostok missile that put Yuri Gagarin into orbit (and various _unmanned probes_ to the moon / the near earth planets) was the Soviet Union's first generation ICBM.  (Similarly, the Atlas missile that put John Glenn into orbit was the United States' first generation ICBM...) To put people on the moon required larger rockets that no longer served any direct military function.  The U.S. had the money to spend on the "prestige project" of putting astronauts on the moon, Russia simply did not.  What the Soviet Union _chose_ to do with its money was building (in Khrushchev's words "like sausages...") THOUSANDS of essentially "Gagarin-class" rockets capable of raining tens of thousands of nuclear warheads on us.  Larger rockets that could have sent Soviet cosmonauts to the Moon would have no longer had any further _direct_ military utility ...

But "that's the way it was" ... And the three African American women in this story (and others like them) like Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games and the Tuskegee Airmen during WW II did the United States a service even as it did not particularly appreciate them at the time.

It is good to remember, however, that there are good people ... and patriots ... who come in all colors / genders.

All in all, while a little "dumbed-down" (on multiple levels...) this is a quite excellent film that does make one's spirit soar.  So over-all a good job with some very good acting / a very good story...

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