Sunday, January 8, 2017

NASA Watch: Hidden Figures (2016)

I'd only become aware of the existence of Katherine Johnson and the "computers" at NASA in the early days of the US side of the space-race within the last four or five years.  The internet is pretty terrific when it comes to sharing the sort of information that used to get buried in footnotes or left out of the common narratives shared of our history.

I was pleased to find out that our noon-time showing of the movie on a Sunday was sold-out, so at least the folks in my neck of the woods seem interested in hearing what the movie had to say.  You never really know how a docu-drama is going to play, but it was interesting how many families had come out to see the movie.  And, honestly, it's a good one for the kids to see.

The movie follows the stories of three women who were pioneers in a world that was breaking boundaries as mankind sought to escape the bonds of earth and reach space.  And, while no doubt how the realities are framed will be debated, the overriding drama of the film is how these women pushed back against the racism and cultural norms of 1960's America that very much could have stood in their way.

An overly lengthy post isn't needed to describe what the movie is about.  If you've seen the trailers, it's pretty clear.  And, in many ways, it's not exactly cutting edge filmmaking - it's character driven narrative, a period piece, and now, more than fifty years on, it's a bit of education for the kids who didn't grow up knowing much about how segregation worked (or that it really was that bad), the impact it had on people as they considered their options - or even more so upon Black women as they also dealt with gender expectations.

Whether as a primer or remedial work on life in 1960 Virginia, the film doesn't take the oppressive tone of a lot of Oscar-bait, and you're going to see a lot of folks using the word "Disney" in their reviews, but I don't think that's entirely accurate (or even necessarily fair to Disney or this movie).  If it works it's way toward a positive ending - I am happy to say, the very real primary figures of the film accomplished a great deal and in many ways this film is showing how they got there.  If it suffers from exposition, there's so darn much to convey between the status quo of the 20th Century segregated South to NASA history to really, really simplifying the issues the math, which is a huge subject of the film, is trying to solve.

A lot of details in the movie - and this is going to be one of those things people will use to dismiss the film - are fictionalized or composites.  As the history of these women is entirely new to me outside of Wikipedia articles, what we can say are factual:  the rules of the road when it came to segregation and that these women were the first and remained some of the finest at NASA until their retirements.

The Hollywood-ization of history aside (or perhaps due to), it's still a heck of a crowd-pleaser of a movie, and has some really good performances straight through from Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, American treasure Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, the lovely Janelle Monae (who has moved from pop stardom to acting) as Mary Jackson - and several other folks you'll know in this all-star cast:  Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst and actor of the hour Mahershala Ali.  I expect we'll also hear more from Glen Powell who plays John Glen.

History is a complicated beast, and while there's an absolute necessity for the tear-jerkers that move us, I don't like the idea that we dismiss the stories of growth and triumph as cheese fit for the plebes.  The things people have accomplished (and against what incredible odds) are just as important to the nature and purpose of why we tell stories - to see what we could do and can do.  That the events of this film did take place not just because of the intellect and drive of amazing women is intensely important in an era that worships the superficial, but equally as important because we - the US - were united in something greater than our individual selves and had no time for our usual hang-ups if we wanted to succeed.  Doors opened when we we looked to our best and brightest.

That's a hell of a lesson.  We can worry about the historical details another day.

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