Sunday, January 15, 2023

Hidden Figures (2016).

There's a line that's been floating around out there for a while now.  It's often attributed to Winston Churchill, and it goes something like this.  "History will be kind to me, for I shall write it".  Whether or not the former prime minister of Great Britain actually said those words, they do speak to an irony at the heart of all history.  The maxim itself is a play on yet an even older saying, this one totally anonymous.  "History is written by the winners".  There are plenty of cases in which this is true enough.  If George Washington hadn't been such a good combat strategist, would his face have ever wound up on the dollar bill?  If it comes to it, would this country even exist if he'd been a failure?  Since he was the winner in the American Revolution, however, he got a chance to help write the next chapter in the story.  That's a relatively straightforward case, however.  Has there ever been any time in history when things weren't so cut and dried?  Well, there's another irony layered on top of the one observed by Churchill.  The trick is that guys like him and Washington are almost special cases.  The only reason they were winners at all was because they were the ones who are remembered for finding workable solutions to extreme situations.

The catch there, however, is that none of them were facing what might be called everyday, normal circumstances.  Every child in America is taught about who Washington was in relation to the creation of a Country.  Very few of us are ever informed about what an average day for the Father of Our Nation was like, when his back wasn't against the wall.  That's because very little of it seems to matter as far as most of us are concerned.  If it were otherwise, whole college curriculums would be dedicated to every facet of his personality and life experiences.  As things exist, such aspects are relegated to specialist studies.  The final irony is this.  Winners are history's exception, not its norms.  And even here, the punchline is that while we glorify the names of those who go on to make great achievements, this can sometimes come at the cost of all the anonymous background faces that were there to help him along the way.  The figures that director Billy Wilder once referred to as "All the Little People out there in the dark".  People like Washington seem to have avoided this kind of irony, as he's always shown as part of a larger tapestry made up of all the American Founders.  I'm not so sure that Churchill, or even Martin Luther King, has it so well.  We know of King, for the most part, as the face of the Civil Rights Movement, or Churchill has the British face of World War 2.  To be fair, there's a lot of accuracy in both claims.  What it obscures, however, are the faces and voices of those who contributed to a good cause.

This is something that a lot of history's anonymous contributors did not so much in silence.  It's just that the microphone never really got turned in their direction.  As a result, it's fair to say there are a lot of major accomplishments out their that will probably never get quite as much recognition as they will ever deserve.  Sometimes a lucky few have their day in the spotlight, however.  That's what's turned out to be the case for the story of Kathy Johnson, and two of her friends, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.  If you've never heard of them, that's both a shame and understandable.  They aren't the sort of titles that jump out of history books at you.  Then again, when's the last time any of us picked up a history book the minute we left the hallowed halls of academe in our rear-view mirrors?  I rest my case.

The point here is that sometimes a handful of the forgotten history makers strike it lucky, and find some measure of remembrance for themselves.  That seems to be the case with a lot of famous events in history.  Even Churchill had Lord Montgomery and FDR by his side.  MLK, meanwhile, had the likes of Rosa Parks and John Lewis joining him in the fight for equality.  It's also true enough that workers like Johnson, Vaughan, and Parker belong to the Civil Rights Movement, too.  They went on living their lives under the radar for the longest time.  Then, one day, after the dust had cleared (and yet while the battle still rages on) they all found the microphone turned in their direction.  The result is that they each got to tell their shared story at last.  Hidden Figures is the dramatization of their struggle.

The Plot and the History.

At the heart of the film's focus is the aforementioned Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson).  She was born Creola Katherine Coleman in August, 1918, to a school teacher mother, and a lumberman father, in a small, West Virginia household.  She wound up being the youngest of four sisters, yet this proved to be no handicap for her, so far as I can tell, anyway.  Part of the reason for that seems to be that Katy was able to display her own natural talents to first her family, and then others, at a very early age.  In her case, that gift was somewhat familiar.  Some people just seem to have this knack for number crunching.  Perhaps you've even met a few of them, or else probably seen the results of their work somewhere before.  We often still refer to them as people "with a head for numbers", or else we give them titles such as "Math Brains", or my favorite, "Stat Freaks".  No matter how you describe it, the phenomenon all comes down to the same thing, some people appear to have a natural gift for mathematics.  In that sense, Kathy was really no different.  She came by her aptitude both naturally and honestly.  In fact, the film begins with a re-creation of an actual event from Katherine's real life.

We open with Katy as a six year on her way toward what turns out to be a not so normal day at school.  Rather than going straight to class, she and her parents are informed that their daughter's skills have managed to allow her entry into West Virginia State College.  Effectively, Kathy was so good in school, that she was allowed to skip the sixth grade, and move up all the way to the eighth.  This is something that happened to the real Katherine Johnson, and its a good way to have an establishing character moment that is based on genuine history.  That was a good effort on her part.  The trouble is there was still one major hurdle that Katy had to face for the vast majority of her life.  That peculiar barrier was concerned with how far some were willing to judge Katherine based on nothing more than the pigmentation in her skin.  As an African American girl growing up the the 50s and 60s, Kathy might have been able to improve her lot.  Though it would always be an uphill struggle (web). The good news is that she was able to have friends and family there alongside her to help out.  This was particularly true for other women, like Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).  

For a minute there, I almost thought this one detail about the other two main leads would be the point where I could lodge an actual complaint about the film.  My initial thinking was that since this was the story about three women facing off against prejudice and discrimination in the field of space exploration, why not give the other two main leads a bit more time in the spotlight?  And for a while there, that idea did continue to make more than a lot of sense.  That's when I stopped and remembered a bit of trivia, and things began to make a different, if somewhat ironic kind of sense.  It all comes down to the fact that it was the equations drawn up by the real Katherine Johnson that allowed NASA to launch their first manned rocket into the stratosphere.  Vaughan and Jackson each played their part, yet it was the actual Kathy who was there to make sure all the rockets both took off from, and then were able to land safely back on what one of the later Apollo astronauts called "the Good Earth".  With this bit of trivia in mind, it makes sense for the film to focus in on her as the story's main lead.  It's one of those things where you can see and mostly agree with the logic going on, and still wish the other two had more time for their characters to stand out on their own.  Though they still do manage to achieve an admirable level of both characterization and success within the finished product that we finally got.

We follow Dorothy, for instance, as she makes gradual progress to becoming the first capable computer programmer at NASA, and then finally all the way up to the role of managing supervisor of the Space Agency's IBM department.  Mary, meanwhile, applies for, and is able to receive a degree in advanced engineering, thus making her one of the designers of the Apollo Program spaceships.  All of these elements are treated as secondary subplots, however.  Like I said, it's possible to understand the logic they went with once you know the history a bit more.  It still leaves this nagging wish that more could have been done.  The good news is this is just a minor gripe, and not anything that hurts the film's chances.  The rest of the plot revolves around a few key moments in the historical Space Race.

It's almost possible to plot the acts of the film by the number of rockets that get launched outside of Earth orbit, and the astronauts who man them.  To start with, there's Alan Shepard (Dane Davenport), the first American to travel in outer space.  Following on his heels is the unlucky Gus Grissom (Devin McGee), whose ultimate fate is prefaced when his space capsule malfunctions in the ocean.  Last, and not least, there's John Glenn (Glen Powell).  Everything in the film's plot is working toward his groundbreaking orbital flight around the planet Earth.  This is also the part of the film where Katherine's Hero's Journey comes to something of a big finish.  This leaves just a few questions.

Conclusion: A Curious Success, and Wanting More. 

When it comes to a film like this, the number of questions can sometimes multiply.  Usually, all anyone has to figure out is whether the final results are entertaining or not.  When it comes to the sub-genre known as the Biopic, however, the task can sometimes prove a bit more difficult.  In addition to whether you were entertained, the critic also faces the task of determining whether or not the story he just saw is true, and how this reflects on the film itself.  This is nothing new, by the way.  It's a collective issue that every single docu-drama has presented audiences with throughout the history of cinema.  It's only in recent years that viewers and critics have begun to take issue with the matter.  We seemed to have reached a point that might be described as a kind of ethical moment of realization about the whole idea of Biopics.  This has resulted in a growing concern that history is not falsified or misrepresented.  In and of itself, this can only be a positive development, especially where the history of ideas such as liberty or democracy come in.  The minute you misinterpret stuff like that is where the real trouble always begins.  So it's easy to both see and understand the concern for accuracy here.

In the case of Hidden Figures, there are a number of liberties taken with historical fact.  For starters, while all three main characters are indeed historical, real life people, the truth was that none of the main cast ever met up all that often in reality, being assigned to different departments within NASA, as well as not really knowing each other all that well as friends.  The real Johnson, Vaughan and Parker were pretty much casual stranger type co-workers to one another, who rarely interacted together, and mostly kept to their own work stations within the facility.  So in that sense, the film has already taken a great deal of liberties with history, right out of the starting gate.  In the film's defense, however, choosing the tactic of lumping the three figures together does accomplish a bit of creative short hand in terms of giving the audience a clear idea of who these women are, what they are doing at NASA, what are their job details, and the kind of struggles they had to put up with, living in the 1960s era Southern states.

This much, at least, is something the film gets right, and it helps to give a sense of the genuine stacked odds that African Americans at that time, and even now, have to navigate just in order to find a normal life.  What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that aside from a few minor alterations, the film does manage to stay accurate enough to both the time period and the politics that governed, and in many ways still hold an unhealthy influence over this country.  One of the things this streamlining of history does help accomplish, as well, is an easier way of granting viewers a sense of just how vital all the three personalities at the heart of the film were in helping mankind in reaching for the stars.  Another accuracy the movie gets right is just how pivitol Johnson, Parker's, and Vaughan's expertise in their chosen field was in helping to both shore up the stability of the NASA rocket, determine the precise calculations needed to make sure the missions worked, and that Shepard, Grissom, and Glenn didn't die up there, as well as providing the mechanical computation necessary to help pull all this off.  In fact, Vaughan herself can be considered one of the legitimate pioneers in the history of digital computing.

So it's not like the film skips out on all the important facts of history.  Instead, the worst you can say about it is that it tends to fall in line with what might now be called a lot of the standard practices of the Hollywood Biopic.  The simple fact is that Tinseltown is in the business of storytelling.  That means anything they put out has to have the  usual rising and falling action, complete with beginning, middle, and end.  That leaves the screenwriter with the unenviable task of having to find out if history can supply their needs with just such a structure in order to tell a real life in a way that comes off as legitimately entertaining.  What's really interesting to note about this is the way in which audiences everywhere have just sort of come to accept this as all part of the nature of things, and therefore don't really bat an eye whenever the occasional liberty is taken with real life for the sake of drama.  A good demonstration of what I mean can be found if we compare and contrast films like Amadeus, or The Man Who Invented Christmas with similar themed movies like Selma or The Crossing.  All of them qualify as Biopics, however if you go back and look at them all, you begin to notice differences between them.

Both Amadeus and Christmas tend to lean much more on the fanciful side of the sliding scale of realism, whereas the George Washington and MLK films manage to keep both feet planted in historical veracity.  In other words, there's something about the lives of people like Mozart and Charles Dickens that seems to warrant these occasional flights of fancy into the nearest heights of imagination that you can approach with these real life personages.  Paradoxically, the exact inverse is seen as true about history makers like King or Washington.  There are at least two interlocking reasons for why we allow these approaches to be taken with otherwise flesh and blood human beings.  In the first place, there's the chosen occupation of each of these historic celebrities.  Both Dickens and Mozart were artists, pure and simple.  While King and Washington are both best described as public figures with a vested interest in the politics of this Country.  These key facts alone seem to determine how we feel they should be portrayed on the screen.  Since two of them concerned themselves with the arts, it therefore doesn't feel too out of place if their films take a detour into their imaginations, as that's where all of their best work came from in the first place.  King and Washington are different, however.

In both cases, we have people interested in trying to find the best possible shape for the life of a Nation, and so their own personal struggles are enough to provide all the drama that's needed to tell a engaging movie narrative.  The screenwriters don't even have to embellish anything to hold the audiences interest, that's how gripping and King and Washington's actual lives were.  So this seems to be like an initial idea of the types, or modes of storytelling used in cinematic docu-dramas.  They appear to be the formats that Hollywood is most comfortable with for the simple reason that these are the approaches that have guaranteed them the most success in the past.  Whether it makes for good history, however, still remains an open question.  A movie like Hidden Figures tends to fall somewhere into the middle ground of these two poles.  It's a lot more grounded and less hectic than Mozart's experiences, while also sharing a great deal in common with the drama experienced by MLK.  In fact, the film actually showcases Dr. King through archival footage at certain points to highlight the shared struggle between him, Johnson, Parker, and Vaughan.  This is yet another aspect of the history that the film get right. 

So it leaves us with a movie that I'd have to say holds together pretty well.  I have seen at least one critic make the complaint that the only problem the movie could have is that it's too safe.  It isn't willing to take as many chances as it could have, in other words.  Now, to be fair, that's a very understandable critique, and it is something I think even fans of this movie may have to bear in mind.  Could it have gone further?  Well, it is just possible that history itself could have supplied the film with one standout moment.  The film decides to make a crucial plot about how Katherine's prospects at work are balanced on a knife edge, and all for the simple reason that there is no "Colored" bathroom in the main NASA building where she works.  So that means we're treated to a montage of scenes where the main character has to keep running back and forth from one annex to another, all while having to juggle complex astronomical and engineering equations in her head, and hoping she can "hold it in" long enough to reach the nearest vacant toilet.  Also she has to be careful about how she goes about all of this in case it gets her fired from her position.  It's a lot of nonsense for anyone to go through, and the film itself highlights how this whole process is a good illustration, even a flat out metaphor for the kind of systemic racism that African Americans had, and still have to face in the South, even up to now.

Meanwhile, all the actual Katherine from history did was little else except make the deliberate choice to say "Screw It", and buck the whole damn system by going ahead and using the "Whites Only" restrooms any time nature called.  She kept the act of defiance up for the whole time she was at NASA.  Eventually, someone figured out what she was up to, and tried calling her out on it.  All she did was just shrug the whole thing off, and kept right on using the restricted facilities.  The result was that no one ever bothered her about it again.  Now I can imagine people holding all sorts of heated debates over which was the best route the film ought to have gone on this issue.  Some will think the movie's version is fine just as it is, while others will argue that accuracy to history is what matters most.  For my own two cents on the matter, I'm willing to let the film version of events slide for one simple reason.  While it's true Johnson managed to buck the system within NASA, so is the fact that others in the hierarchy weren't that lucky.  It's not that much of a stretch to claim there were other Afro-American women in that whole complex who still had to go out of such a ridiculous amount of their way like that.  It's for this reason that I say perhaps it's best that this little bit of invention is left in, because maybe it's not really that much of a stretch after all.  Instead, it's a good metaphor for the struggles that the Black women had to endure, even if all they wanted was to try and explore the nature of the cosmos.

In fact, that sort of brings up the one other critique its possible to make here.  The trick is that I can't really say this one is something you direct at the movie itself.  Instead, it's more to do with a paradox that lay at the very heart of NASA itself during the 50s and 60s.  The fact of he matter is that the whole point for anyone being there in the first place was to take part in what was known as the Space Race.  It was a form of international, non-combative combat (if that makes any sense, and besides, its politics, so just grin and bear it) between the United States and Russia.  This Race, in turn, was just one part (really more like a mere cog in the machine) of a larger conflict known as the Cold War.  The best term I've ever heard used to describe the whole thing is as one great, big, international pissing contest to see who deserves to be called top dog in the kennel.  That's a pretty accurate description, so far as it goes.  And what it all means in life size terms is that the whole thing really was (and still is) a useless waste not only of time, but also of human lives.  This was a sort of collective realization that the Country as a whole seems to have woken up to by the end of 1969, at the very peak of NASA's triumphs. 

By 1974, the America had pretty much turned against the entire Cold War along with an underlying technocratic ethos that had helped foster and sustain it during throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  It's one of the great, looming ironies of NASA's history, and it is possible to claim that the satire at the heart of this movie holds up more than just good enough.  In fact, it can even hold up well outside the bounds of the film itself, with guys like Elon Musk seemingly hellbent on repeating the same sort of mistake in an almost comically heightened fashion.  Needless to say, I'm leery of the idea of outer space being in the hands of someone like that.  For all of these, reasons, and in spite of the fact that I have heard the film described as a glorified TV movie of the week, I still find myself wanting to know if anything more happens next.  For instance, in the book this movie is based off of, it's revealed that Katherine Johnson went on to help program the flight plan for the Apollo 11 Moon Landing.  If there were to ever be a follow-up, this would be the obvious way to go, and the creative possibilities of such a story could be just about endless, like for instance what did Katherine think of the event, how did it impact her on a personal level, was she still on board, or was she following the rest of the country with a series of growing doubts that made her question her mission at NASA?  All of it is great plot material.

Stuff like that is the natural seed bed of drama, both in fiction, and real life.  It would therefore make perfect sense to follow up a film like this with a sequel that re-visits Katherine Johnson a few years down the timeline, in order to see how the first step onto another planet impacted her, for better or worse.  If done right, it could make for quite the compelling story.  In  the meantime, a film Hidden Figures deserves a passing grade for what amounts to a good effort.  I don't think it reaches quite the same heights as a film like Selma.  Yet it's clear both movies are treading the same ground, and tackling the exact same theme.  The only real difference is the setting and the character.  The basic conflict at the heart of each film remains the same.  It's a film that deserves to be recognized for its own efforts.  This isn't so bad, as biopics go, and that makes it a story drawn from history that is well worth checking out. 

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