February 27, 2017 | Rome, Italy | Partly cloudy 16°C
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Documentaries

Weiner

In a powerful documentary, Anthony Weiner shows how he destroyed both self and marriage.

Drama

The Comedians

Graham Greene's novel strongly denounced Papa Doc, but the movie version feels stilted.

'71

Yann Demange provides a powerful, at times surreal vision of Belfast at the height of The Troubles.

Manchester by the Sea

Lucas Hedges and Casey Affleck are stalwart players in Kenneth Lonergan's brooding drama.

Fences

Denzel Washington performs spectacularly in the film version of August Wilson's play.

Horror

We Are Still Here

Ted Geoghegan's much-praised horror outing makes a basement come alive, but that's it.

Thrillers

Man From Reno

Dave Boyle's quirky neo-noir gets its punch from Ayako Fujitani and Pepe Serna.

The Gift

There's a "Rosemary's Baby" feel to Joel Edgerton's often jarring psychological thriller.

Science Fiction

Arrival

Denis Villeneuve's alien landing movie tries hard to be hyper-intelligent, but ends up falling flat.


Date: 2016
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monαe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell

Hidden Figures

In the early 1960s NASA assembled some of America's best and the brightest scientific minds in its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, hoping the group would calculate how to launch an American astronaut into earth orbit. Yet the best and the brightest were not equal — at least not in NASA's desegregation-resistant Hampton facility.

Director Theodore Malfi's "Hidden Figures" (he co-wrote the script) covers the story of three black women at Langley. Though racial segregation had been ruled federally unconstitutional in 1954, the women still had to work in an all-black wing. One of them was brilliant mathematician Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson). When promoted to the elite all-male, all-white launch group, she had to pour coffee from a pot labeled "colored" and walk to a colored ladies' room located in a separate building.

The film tells five stories — six including NASA's 1962 success in launching John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit. These rich plot lines and strong performances from the three female protagonists — mathematicians Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) — give the film a fascinating and distinct personality.

There is Johnson's intellectual ascent within the so-called Space Task Group (she calculated rocket trajectories), Jackson's drive to become an aeronautical engineer, and Vaughn's campaign to be officially named the supervisor (in reality, she got that post in 1949). Behind all this work are two romantic backstories. Henson in particular brings captivating power and considerable subtlety to a role that should have earned her an Oscar nod.

The film's white characters are mostly one-dimensional. Head mathematician Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) irrationally maintains a racist grudge against Johnson throughout the story. Task Group leader Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, in a familiar PC-guy-as-authority-figure performance) behaves much like a football coach at halftime.

Parts of the film stretch credulity. Johnson's many runs to the distant bathroom grow tiresome. Her reassignment — after calculating Glenn's flight re-entry — seems improbable, as does Vaughn's self-taught mastery of an IBM super-computer. A scene of the three women striding together down a NASA corridor is more likely more myth than reality, just as it's unlikely that Harrison ever took a crowbar to the colored ladies' room sign.

Like most films based on "true events," the key words remain "based on." Still, Malfi's movie is a superbly structured drama that vividly evokes a little-known aspect of the space race.

Reviewed by: William Graebner and Dianne Bennett
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