Hidden Figures, the third feature by St. Vincent director Ted Melfi, is a rare Oscar-bait drama with genuine mass appeal, a box office hit in the US and likely the preferred Best Picture nominee of many ‘normal’ people outside the Hollywood bubble. It encompasses so many popular elements: untold stories of African-American triumph, untold stories of female triumph, and the space race. Its cast is led by popular network TV stars Taraji P Henson and Jim Parsons, as well as Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, singer Janelle Monae and… umm… Kevin Costner.
In Hidden Figures, there is truly something for everyone. Yet the whole is not necessarily greater than the sum of the parts: Hidden Figures‘ attempts at populism are its downfall. The script, by Melfi and Allison Shroeder, is painfully clichéd at times. There is desperate overuse of Pharrell Williams music, providing literal soundtrack to a number of sequences (Williams sings “Running, Running, Running” as Henson’s character runs to the toilet).
Visually, the film has a distinctly Warner Brothers gloss (amusing, since this is a Fox release) that screams mediocrity. Were it not for the presence of such talent as Spencer and Monae (in her second impressive turn of the year after Moonlight), Hidden Figures would be highly comparable to a big-budget TV movie. Yet, thanks to elevation of the material by these performers, and a general sense that this film’s story is an essential one, Hidden Figures gains much goodwill.