Well, today is the big day: the day of the Academy Awards. I mentioned in my review of Manchester by the Sea that I wanted to see some more of the Best Picture nominees before the winner was announced today, and last week I managed to make time to see Hidden Figures. A quick side note: after reviewing the film, there will be a short section regarding my thoughts on the Best Picture award this year.
Hidden Figures is a nice little movie. It takes a setting most of us are at least vaguely aware of — the Space Race in the 1960s — and finds an angle most of us weren’t familiar with — the role African American women played in helping the United States put men into outer space through their work in mathematics and computer science. In doing so it reminds us that, for every astronaut who was lionized for reaching a new frontier, there were countless unsung heroes behind the scenes making it possible; and they deserve after admiration as well. More over, this film provides effective encouragement for people to pursue careers in STEM fields, regardless of their background, race, gender, or social status; which is good in this day and age.
Beyond the effectiveness of the message, this is simply a well-made picture. The acting is terrific, there’s palpable emotion in the story, and the story is paced very well. It’s not stylistically bold or artistically ambitious the way a picture like La La Land is, but this movie, by virtue of being moving and cathartic and entertaining, never the less represents a high point in film craftsmanship for 2016.
If there’s a single issue to be levied against the film, it’s that at times it’s a little blunt thematically. The women in the film have to face a great deal of racism and sexism throughout the story; and the movie chooses to have them convey their feelings and frustrations through very overt speeches and dialogue that have a pre-rehearsed quality to them. It’s not that it’s bad per se — I get the feeling that the writers wanted to be direct with us in order to make sure that we understand the message — but I feel that a little more subtlety at times would have worked to the picture’s benefit.
It’s also worth noting that while the film is based on real history, there are some inaccuracies in what it depicts. Some of these are understandable simplifications — such as characters in the film being composites of multiple real life people or how events that in reality happened years apart are shown to happen in a shorter span of time. Some inaccuracies, though, appear to exaggerate the amount of segregation that was felt by these women at NASA. That’s slightly more controversial, I think, given the film’s message, and it raises some interesting points on what is and isn’t acceptable to modify in terms of historical events when trying to convey a point based on said events. That said, it’s beyond the scope of this piece (and my writing prowess for that, matter) to address them here.
That aside, I really did enjoy Hidden Figures. And with the Academy Awards being tonight, I figure now is as good as time as any to say that Hidden Figures would be my pick among the nominees for Best Picture. The other Best Picture nominees that I have seen — Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea — all do many things right but are also dragged down by key problems. Hacksaw Ridge relies too much on standard war film formulas, Manchester by the Sea suffers from being too basic, and La La Land‘s ending clashes unjustifiably with the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed each of those films, and at least one (La La Land) is arguably more artistic, ambitious, and entertaining than Hidden Figures; but Hidden Figures is the one that works best as a movie. It has a story that flows nicely, isn’t too predictable, has a strong message, and overall is executed really well; and though I did mention that I have issues with its comparative lack of subtlety, those are comparatively minor and don’t do any real damage to the picture. This is, to put it bluntly, the best made of the Best Picture nominees.
Furthermore, if we view long term legacy as a valid metric for greatness film, then I think Hidden Figures is also the best Best Picture nominee that I’ve seen. I have a feeling this is the kind of movie that will be both seen and shown to others (particularly in schools) for years in order to encourage people to pursue STEM fields who might not otherwise have thought about it. While looking backwards to a point over fifty years ago; the message of Hidden Figures — that anyone can be a scientist — is very forward thinking; and I believe people have already taken notice of that. Thus, I don’t see this film being forgotten anytime soon; rather it will live on as a source of inspiration to newer generations of scientists. By comparison, I tend to think that Hacksaw Ridge and Manchester by the Sea won’t be remembered long after award season. Manchester by the Sea‘s bare bones approach just doesn’t give it that much to be remembered by, while Hacksaw Ridge* is simply one more acclaimed World War II-era story in a sea of them.
Now with La La Land, that’s a little different. That movie will certainly have a legacy. It has really struck a chord with people, who have responded well to its old-school style, music, themes, and the chemistry between the leads. It’s also worth noting that La La Land is current projected to win Best Picture**. That’s understandable given that the Academy loves films that celebrate filmmaking (think 2011’s The Artist, which celebrated the silent-era and won Best Picture that year). This movie will certainly have a legacy as a reminder that old-school ideas can be successfully brought into the modern age; and it will also live on as date-night movie of choice for some time. The reason why I think Hidden Figures‘s legacy will be more important than La La Land‘s, though, is because, ultimately, La La Land‘s legacy will lie in being a reminder of things that you already knew were great. Hidden Figures, which brings to light something most of weren’t ever aware of, will have a legacy of truly giving us something new to think about. And in this case, I think newness wins out.
Having just written all of that, it’s worth noting that this all in good fun. As I said last year, it really doesn’t matter which film wins Best Picture. Everyone is free to decide which film was the best of 2016*** by whatever metrics they like. So whatever happens tonight, just take comfort in the fact that greatness is in the eye of the beholder, and while the Academy Awards can be fun, don’t take the results too seriously.
* Admittedly, it may have a bit more legacy if it winds up being a genuine comeback vehicle for Mel Gibson, but we’ll have to wait and see.
** Interestingly enough, I found this article the other day written by someone who really didn’t like La La Land and doesn’t think it’ll be good if it wins. I don’t agree with most of it, apart from the author’s assessment of the ending not working, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating read.
*** For me it’s a tie between Kubo and the Two Strings and The Edge of Seventeen, though neither was nominated for Best Picture.