Hidden Figures tells the neglected story of the black women mathematicians behind the scenes during the early days of NASA.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) works as a computer in the backrooms of NASA as the fledgling agency tries to put a man in space. She is tapped to work out analytical geometry for hard-nosed director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), and suffers the contempt of Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who resents her attempts to gain credit for her work on his project. Fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) have parallel struggles. Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) wants Jackson as his engineer, but she must jump through Jim Crow hoops to achieve that title, while Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) offers no help to Vaughan in her quest to be given the title of supervisor of the coloured computers given that she’s doing the job. Their difficulties are mirrored by America failing to keep pace with the USSR.
Always be suspicious of important films, they are rarely good. And always be suspicious of films based on a true story, they usually make pig-swill of history and defensively claim artistic license even as they demand Oscars for their fearless dedication to telling true stories. Director Theodore Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder’s script is full of transparently bogus movie moments that are the hallmark of screenwriting designed purely to create Oscar ceremony excerpts: Costner desegregates NASA with a crowbar, Henson gives her boss the sort of haranguing that in reality precedes being escorted from the premises, and, in perhaps the most delirious touch of all, to symbolise how Johnson despite her important work had the door slammed in her face by white men, Melfi has Johnson hand over her important work and have the door slammed in her face. Indeed.
Spencer hasn’t changed her shtick since I disliked it in Ugly Betty but is Oscar-nominated for Supporting Actress. Spike Lee’s calculated tantrum reaped 6/20 black acting nominations this year, but Spencer is nominated when Greta Gerwig is not for 20th Century Women, and you wonder about that during Spencer’s jaw-dropping put-down of Dunst (who is obviously a snob not a racist). A put-down redolent of the current cultural moment’s disquieting joy in fault-finding witch-hunts which insist dissent from the (ever-changing) party line betrays a racist/sexist/et al mindset which might not even be conscious of its own white privilege/toxic masculinity/et al. Hidden Figures, like Supergirl, is rather effective when it gets off its soapbox. Monae translates her soul star charisma, Mahershala Ali plays quiet grace, Glenn Powell is an ebullient John Glenn, and the rise of IBM in rocketry is fascinatingly handled.
Hidden Figures is entertaining, despite missed opportunities to dig deeper into black identity via radical Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge), but its depiction of history needs to be taken with a whole cellar of salt.
The Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017 (16th-26th Feb) opens tonight with the Gala Irish Premiere of hotly-anticipated Irish-Canadian co-production Maudie, featuring Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins, finally making its Irish homecoming after international critical acclaim. Director Aisling Walsh will attend the screening for a Q&A in front of an audience that includes festival-goers, film-makers, and industry professionals.
Film fans have 11 days of cinema ahead with an array of top talent coming to Dublin to present films from around the world and some key Irish films from the year ahead.
Highlights of the first weekend include the Gala Screening of Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture with a host of special guests, the World Premiere of Jamie Thraves’ Pickups with actor Aidan Gillen in attendance, Tindersticks front-man Stuart Staples will present his brilliant new project Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F, Percy Smith, and New Zealand actress Kerry Fox will appear at the Irish premiere of The Rehearsal and join us for a look back at her breakthrough role in Jane Campion’s An Angel At My Table. On Monday 20th Feb the festival hosts the Centrepiece Gala screening of new Irish documentary In Loco Parentis, and the Cineworld Gala World Premiere of new Irish horror Nails with Ross Noble, Shauna MacDonald, and Leah McNamara in attendance. On Wednesday 22nd Feb, the festival hosts the Irish premiere of Unless, a new Irish-Canadian film starring Catherine Keener, with director Alan Gilsenan in attendance.
The Audi Gala of Free Fire on Thurs 23rd Feb sees Kill List and High-Rise maestro Ben Wheatley return to the festival, joined by Irish cast members Jack Reynor and Cillian Murphy. Friday 24th Feb sees a special tribute to John Hurt with the first Irish screening of his performance in 2014’s Snowpiercer, which wasn’t released here after much controversy over its re-cutting for American audiences, while Anna Friel appears with director Juanita Wilson at a Special Presentation screening of Tomato Red.
The Festival’s final day sees no let up in activity with a Special Presentation of Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais’s new film Headshot, the Special Presentation World Premiere of Emer Reynolds The Farthest with an appearance from Voyager Program project manager John Casani, the much-speculated-about Surprise Film, and the Closing Gala Irish Premiere of John Butler’s Handsome Devil.
Alice Lowe, star and co-writer of Sightseers, makes her directorial debut with a misfiring black comedy about a heavily pregnant woman guided by her unborn child.
Ruth (Lowe) is looking for a pet for her son. That’s what she tells a pet store owner, anyway. Just before slitting his throat, at the behest of her daughter; as yet unborn but already very demanding – and rather homicidal. And so it goes. Ruth targets men and women for sudden bloody murder, and nobody sees it coming, because who would suspect a woman in her final trimester to be capable of such violence. But as it becomes clear that Ruth is working her way through a very particular list of transgressors, she starts to have doubts about the wisdom of what she’s doing.
Prevenge is a strange beast indeed. You seem expected to give a standing ovation to Lowe for not only writing, but starring and directing in the semi-improvised romp, while she was herself in her final trimester. But if the resulting film isn’t any good, what does it matter what the circumstances of its production were? Teeth and Jennifer’s Body are the films that came to mind while watching this, and that’s not a compliment. At first it seems Ruth is killing men for making 1970s sitcom double entendres, or for not being interested in having children. Then she murders a woman uninterested in having children and prejudiced against women who are and waste her time faffing about with maternity leave. By the time you understand her motives it’s already too late.
Prevenge is a mean-spirited film, and perfunctorily so. Each victim feels like a vignette, as if Lowe had taken the modus operandi of Kind Hearts & Coronets, but dispensed with the delicious calculation and Alec Guinness’ delightful gallery of twits and bounders.