Film Review: ‘Hidden Figures’ Is Pure Goodness Featuring a Stellar Cast

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are three brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

There’s much to admire in Theodore Melfi‘s newest uplifting venture “Hidden Figures.” His ability to tap into the human condition and spirit has been proven with efforts like “St. Vincent.” Boasting an all-star cast that includes the talents of Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer, the 20th Century Fox feature emerges as one of the feel good films of the holiday season. Just one year after #OscarSoWhite dominated the internet, pointing out the Academy’s lack of diversity, the timely themes explored here resonate more than ever.

“Hidden Figures” tells the story of a team of African-American women who provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions.

Melfi is a competent and distinguished filmmaker, and despite only two features under his belt, he really knows how to tell a story and tell it well. He invites the audience into the tale, allowing his sensibilities to take hold of the viewer. The top-notch direction in which he leads his actors are some of the finest of the year. Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson, one of the brightest minds to ever walk through NASA, delivers her best film performance since “Hustle & Flow.” She is finally given an opportunity to play something different than her ever-popular Cookie from FOX’s “Empire.” While she overplays her hand slightly in key moments, her natural charisma is on full display for the audience to behold.

The professional and stoic presence of Octavia Spencer tends to be overlooked in film because she’s always so great without even really trying. As Dorothy Vaughan, Spencer delivers some of her same ticks that won her an Academy Award for “The Help” and that could be too familiar for some on the surface. When seen on multiple viewings, you can see Spencer’s interpretation of her character really evolve throughout the film’s runtime.

The highlights of “Hidden Figures” are in the two show-stopping performances of musical artist turned actress Janelle Monae and Academy Award winner Kevin Costner. Monae taps into the fight and spunk of Mary Jackson, showcasing the determination and frustration of a brilliant mind, desperate to finally explore her full academic and professional potential. While Monae’s external beauty is front and center, she bares her soul to the viewer, virtually giving us a warm nuzzle and allowing us to get peeks into her sophisticated and heartbreaking aura.

In recent years, Costner has found it difficult for audiences to remember how great of an actor he really is. We’ve received brief glimpses in films like “The Upside of Anger,” but rest assured, Costner magnifies his abilities here, likely delivering his finest performance yet. His Al Harrison’s leadership is a comfort for the film, acting like cinematic scissors to cut through the barrier between movie and person.

The film is a major threat for the Cast Ensemble award at the upcoming Screen Actors Guild awards, with supporting players like Mahershala Ali (charming as ever), Jim Parsons (playing an against-type), Kirsten Dunst (feverishly addictive in her mean woman role), and Glen Powell (playing the late John Glenn) all crucial to the film’s inevitable success.

Brimming and refreshing, Melfi’s technical team truly shines with slick production and costume design, and a soundtrack that is sure to go down as one of the year’s best. Producer and songwriter Pharrell Williams‘ two numbers – “I See Victory” and “Runnin'” – are just two more examples of the Original Song Oscar being the most competitive in the history of the category. In terms of the film itself, it does the job and does it well. Not necessarily pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, it’s just pleasant and wonderful in every sense of the word.

Precisely marketed as terrific adult entertainment for the Christmas season, “Hidden Figures” is a faithful and truly beautiful portrait of our country’s consistent gloss over the racial tensions that have divided and continue to plague the fabric our existence. Lavishly engaging from start to finish, “Hidden Figures” may be able to catch the most inopportune movie-goer off guard and cause them to fall for its undeniable and classic storytelling. The film is not to be missed.

Hidden Figures” is distributed by 20th Century Fox and is scheduled to be released on Christmas in limited release before expanding on Jan. 6.

GRADE: (★★★½)