Hidden Figures

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The Help. Crash. Remember The Titans. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Blazing Saddles. Putting race relations and civil rights in America under cinema’s microscope is a cultural exercise almost as old as Morgan Freeman. It’s a subject that transcends both eras and genres alike, as relevant to today as it’s ever been, but it faces a fundamental problem; the longer the issue itself endures, the more at risk stories about it are of growing stale. How many ways of saying ‘racism is bad’ must there be before the point is rendered obsolete? Standing out from the crowd is an ever-growing pressure for African American stories and storytellers in this industry, but what sets Hidden Figures apart is a surprisingly simple reworking of the ‘African Americans struggling in a white man’s world’ formula – emphasis not on the ‘white’, but on the ‘man’.

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In 1961, as the US and the USSR are locked in the intensity of the Space Race, mathematical prodigies Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) work as human ‘computers’ for NASA. As pressure mounts within the US government in the face of Soviet success, Katherine finds herself seconded to the Space Task Force, whilst Mary’s assistance with the space capsule convinces her to pursue an engineering degree, and Dorothy fights for her job against the introduction of electronic computers. But in a time when red is the enemy, can NASA look beyond black and white?

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The issue of race relations may seem a little tacked on there, but it illustrates what is easily Hidden Figures’ unique selling point. It’s odd to say this of a film that so highlights 1950s/60s US segregation, with characters citing Brown v. Board of Education and newscasts namedropping the Freedom Riders. But as much as Hidden Figures acknowledges this day-to-day reality for its protagonists, ultimately it’s all just context and backdrops. It’s not the colour of their skin that defines them most, but their sex. It’s a shift in emphasis that’s nothing short of inspired, elevating the story from yet another two-hour case study of racial injustice, and conflating it with today’s concerns over sexism and gender equality. What’s more difficult than being black and ambitious in early 60s America? Being black, and ambitious, and a woman in early 60s America.

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In communities and groups both black and white, our leading ladies are continuously disparaged and undervalued, even by the men in their lives. Jim Parsons’ snooty head engineer Paul Stafford is something we’ve seen a dozen times, and so his slights towards Katherine come as no surprise. Katherine’s love interest Jim (Mahershala Ali), on the other hand, his early condescension towards her work and ambitions makes an indelible mark. In so doing, the film captures a distinctly more holistic picture of the issue at hand than many a major Hollywood feature of its kind, a reminder that true progress towards social equality cannot be achieved in the workplace without its equal recognition in the home, and vice versa.

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Despite Katherine being the central focus of the story, the trials and tenacity of Mary and Dorothy are fleshed out and explored so fully that to call either of them supporting characters feels like a disservice. Henson, Monáe and Spencer bring their A-game to their every second of impressively balanced screen-time, with Monáe’s courtroom speech an especial standout both as a scene and as a performance. Outside of the film’s core on-message moments, however, things can at times feel a little run of the mill. Kevin Costner’s turn as the weighted down Space Task Force director Harrison leaves little impression, but when your ‘big moment’ is centred on the line “we all pee the same colour”, you know this isn’t exactly a Spencer Tracy-type role. Likewise with Kirsten Dunst’s half-baked southern accent as supervisor Vivian, the job is done fine but to generally blunt and toned-down effect.

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Nevertheless, Hidden Figures is a cinematic triumph for feminism of a different colour, and a reminder of the importance of intersectionality in the fight for gender equality today. It makes no attempt to downplay its ethos of ‘pursuing the improbable’, frequently conflating the struggles of Katherine, Mary and Dorothy with mankind’s greater destiny amongst the stars, but it befits the spirit of the times both then and now. Basking in the ample charisma of its leading ladies, as well as a thoroughly foot-tapping soundtrack, Hidden Figures is a timely film that knows it doesn’t have to take itself too seriously for its point to be made.

Quality: 4/5

Experience: 4/5

Final Score: 4/5

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American Sniper

Someone once said that you don’t have to support the war to support the soldier. I have no idea who that someone was, or where it was said, but I remember it. There’ll be no Harvard-style citations here so just trust my powers of selective recollection. In any case, it’s an excellent rationalization of human warfare, but one that seems entirely lost on Clint Eastwood’s latest turn in the director’s chair, if not outright rebuked. A biopic adapted from the personal memoir of Chris ‘The Legend’ Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history, ‘American Sniper’ is a good film. By definition, it is a good film. It’s well directed, it’s impressively shot, it’s effective, it’s engaging, and there really isn’t a bad performance to be noted throughout. There is no denying that Eastwood has made a thoroughly well-crafted piece of cinema here. It’s just supremely difficult and frustrating to concede all this when it’s message, and how it’s message dominates the framing of the story, is so alarmingly warped as a view on very real events. But, this isn’t a political pulpit for me to preach from. And I’m not tumblr. Let’s crack on.

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Without having read the memoir itself, it’s difficult to determine just how good and faithful an adaptation it is of Kyle’s life as he wrote it, an issue that ties into that of its message, but we will return to that later. As it is, it’s certainly one of the most thorough onscreen biographies in recent memory, chronicling the life and evolution of the man himself from playground protector of his little brother to a veritable Captain America of the US Navy SEALs, and the gradual psychological toll this journey takes on him. It’s a relatively complete portrait, and there’s a definite sense of Eastwood purposely striving for just that: capturing every brick and cornerstone as they are laid. It’s this kind of care and attention to representing Kyle’s character that makes the stateside scenes by far the most compelling, and which really afford us a distinct and methodical look at the mentality of a sniper who served four tours in the Iraq War. This is the kind of filmmaking that made the sniper-standoff in Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Hurt Locker’ so electrifying.

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Come the Iraq scenes though, and the chance to really lay claim to that grandiose title of ‘American Sniper’, and for the most part you might as well play some Call of Duty. There are the shootouts, there’s the campouts, there’s the briefings and the banter, yet ironically enough the sniper-ing itself counts for very little. That doesn’t mean to say that when Eastwood does focus on ‘The Legend’, rather than Chris Kyle’, it isn’t compelling viewing. It’s just that you don’t come away from the film really understanding his reputation. At most, he comes across as a capable soldier and a slightly impressive marksman. As for the action, there really isn’t much we haven’t seen before, outside of a few gorgeous sweeping shots of a war-torn Iraqi city that make you feel like an automated air drone flying over the chaos, and Eastwood never isolates the action too much from the human interest through Kyle’s regular phone calls to his wife, and her ordeal when hearing him go silent at the sound of gunfire down the line.

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Considering human interest really is the golden egg-laying goose here, it stands to reason that practically this entire enterprise hinged on its casting, and here at the very least Eastwood hits it out of the park. Never in his career has Bradley Cooper given a performance like this, not only dramatically altering his physique to almost Dwayne Johnson proportions, but also opting for a subtle approach in his performance that borders on sublime. It’s a portrayal that’s truly impossible to convey in so many words, hypnotically commanding the audience’s attention and promising us that however cool, calm and collected his demeanour may be, there is a maelstrom of desperation, drive, self-assuredness and disorientation happening behind the eyes. It’s a surgical reconstruction of a character, and Bradley Cooper holds not only that complexity together, but the entire feature around him. With the added bonus of Sienna Miller in the role of Mrs Taya Kyle, herself somehow unrecognizable and disappearing inside a performance of equal excellence, ‘American Sniper’ can at least be considered a credible story as to the hardships faced by families enduring the stresses of war.

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‘American Sniper’ is solidly crafted, effective entertainment. That much is my conclusion as a film critic, but despite this I cannot in good conscience recommend it. Films are made for a number of reasons, be it to contribute to an art form, or to pioneer new technology. Some films are made to inspire, or to educate, or to simply entertain, or any combination of all these. If you want to really judge a film, judge it on how it justifies its reasons for being made at all, and Eastwood’s reasons for making this film are shamelessly transparent: to resurrect that ‘rally-around-the-flag’, xenophobic, post-9/11 hysteria from which western civilization still has a hangover. It’s staggering that in all the years since it was exposed just how baseless precipitating the Iraq War was, from the lies about WMD’s to linking Iraq with the World Trade Centre attacks, a film such as this can receive such ‘recognition’ from the industry. Again, without reading the memoir itself, it’s hard to say how much of this stems from Eastwood’s interpretation and Kyle’s own experience, but does that automatically mean an adaptation must worship a singular viewpoint irrespective of whether it’s rooted in fact or opinion? Chris Kyle was one man, and his experiences are entirely his own, including whatever opinions he forms in consequence. A film adaptation is the collective result of many contributors who, though they may lack the experience in question itself, have the benefit of having seen the bigger picture from afar.

Honouring a soldier for the hardships he endured is fair. Perpetuating the lies that brought him those hardships in the first place is not.

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Quality: 4/5

Entertainment: 3.5/5

Averaged Out: 4/5

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