United Artists’ High Noon (1952) is a lightning rod of controversy. This compelling movie was made with the best talents and its taut, purpose-driven plot gains and keeps attention. Any honest appraisal must account for its flaws, too. I recently saw it again at the Autry Museum of the American West, where the movie will be discussed in a program next year comparing the classic Western to what’s become known as the Hollywood blacklist.
The picture’s timely connection to a congressional campaign against Communism pertains to its downside. High Noon has a stagy, stiff quality that feels pedantic, forced and overproduced. In that sense, like Gary Cooper’s film for Warner Bros., The Fountainhead (1949), it’s too obviously delivering a message. Part of the problem is the age difference between Cooper as Hadleyville’s marshal Will Kane and Grace Kelly (Rear Window) as his deeply religious bride. And this problem feeds off the plot’s need to make the marshal more like a prop than a fully developed character.
On its own terms, however, High Noon engages to a degree. Marshal and Mrs. Kane flee from an evildoer on their wedding day—as the married couple does in Oklahoma!, also directed by Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons, The Nun’s Story)—though they are not forced to do so and this, in particular, is a crucial distinction. To his credit, the marshal has retired his badge and job by the time he turns tail and gallops with his blonde young bride and, though he changes his mind, he later changes it again after putting the badge back on and decides to flee from harm. This is important because it shows that the lawman is conflicted.
So, infamously, is the town of Hadleyville. But the audience is supposed to morally judge them, and not him, for being conflicted. This while the marshal eventually, strictly and stubbornly out of a sense of duty carries out his mission to confront the evildoer coming in on the noontime train. Add a constant tick-tock clock and a song sung by Tex Ritter, with Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar-winning score, complex and interesting supporting roles and High Noon holds interest. As allegory for what the writer apparently considers an unjust anti-Communist hunt, High Noon does not hold up.
See the movie and judge for yourself. What works as moral dilemma is what drains and undercuts the allegorical warning. This explains why High Noon, first offered to John Wayne (who rejected the leading role) and held up by leftists and those who condemn anyone (such as director Elia Kazan, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront) who named Communists (such as High Noon‘s credited screenwriter, Carl Foreman) in the HUAC hearings, gets praised and claimed across the political spectrum. The movie is mixed.
No one scene explicitly captures this more than the speech in church by the morally gray, rotten character played by Thomas Mitchell, who basically endorses pragmatism (speaking of timely political references) as the reason for denying a defense of the town, on the grounds that protecting Hadleyville from thugs jeopardizes government handouts. This from a character who says he admires Will Kane and rightly demands that Will Kane be heard in his plea for help, that the hearing be civil and that the townspeople do, in fact, contrary to some claims, constitute the whole town.
“This is our town,” pleads Mitchell’s character and then he proceeds to make the case for abandoning its defense and appeasing its enemies (speaking of timely political references again). It’s not surprising that the mixed, pragmatic philosophy of this movie, chosen by the Autry’s members as the audience favorite in 2016’s Western film series, dominates today’s culture, politics and foreign policy; anyone on the left, right or in the middle can justifiably project himself onto the Will Kane character. High Noon was apparently one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite movies yet Bill Clinton showed it in the White House numerous times.
What decent person wouldn’t want to see himself as the crusading hero seeking to render justice in a “dirty little village in the middle of nowhere” (starting with a lonely train station as in 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock) as Katy Jurado’s Mexican character puts it? With producer and director Stanley Kramer (Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Inherit the Wind) producing and said to be heavily involved with the filmmaking, how could High Noon not end up being serious, topical and absorbing? The cast of characters, though there are too many and they say too much, are a fascinating assortment of profiles in cowardice.
As evil men gather over the movie’s signature song at the start, church bells ring and religion comes off as the antidote selected by the townspeople to deal with whatever’s wrong with the world. They dread facing the truth, and, while the voice of reason is also a voice for pragmatism, he gathers and rallies the town in a church, where the parson, all but ceding that sermonizing offers no real, practical value here on earth, fully abdicates religion as a philosophy. Hadleyville’s lone intellectual, the judge who marries Will and Amy Kane, cites 5th century BC history and the fact that he’d previously fled a similarly challenged town called Indian Falls as he packs up and folds an American flag to get out of town. Lloyd Bridges’ deputy marshal sees himself as a victim who knows on some level that he lives through others. An innkeeper (who today would be a vocal proponent of Donald Trump) is more explicit in stating that the ends justify the means.
In this sense, Hadleyville’s a stand-in for America and its religion is pragmatism and High Noon certainly rings true in this regard, down to the fact that the whole place’s days are numbered. To this point, the Battle Hymn of the Republic plays in the climax as the clock ticks, emphasizing that the town’s doom comes closer while the town prays away precious seconds. While Gary Cooper’s Will Kane runs around town pleading for help against the four monsters about to strike, a character played by Harry Morgan hides, making the town’s cowardice more explicit, in case the audience misses the point. Someone asks: “How do we know that [the villain] is on the train?” Someone asserts that “it’s not our jobs” to protect the town. Even Will Kane’s mentor, an arthritic, old man, opposes confronting the thugs, telling him: “It’s all for nothing.”
But why would a hero go to enlist an old man in the first place? This is the problem with High Noon, which contradicts Kane’s heroism at every turn.
Whether he’s riding out of town after retiring his badge—and he was uncertain and unsteady in both decisions from the start—Will Kane can’t seem to stand on his own and decide what’s right. On one hand, with a town so undeserving—and you learn how thugs came to rule as the town’s lousy characters come along—it’s easy to see why the former marshal doesn’t want to go it alone. It’s hardly worth the effort as the town’s already half-dead. As the Tex Ritter song, “Do Not Forsake Me, My Darling” plays as a taunt in the saloon, it’s as though Will Kane goes door to door taunting himself, doubting whether he does have a moral duty to save a town that won’t defend itself (he doesn’t), casting himself adrift wherever he goes. When his ex-deputy (Bridges) asks Kane “Why?” Kane answers: “I don’t know.”
Yet when Katy Jurado’s morally ambiguous character—depicted as decent but remember she’s been the hero’s and the villain’s leading lady—proclaims that “when [Kane] dies, this town dies, too,” what’s the evidence that the town’s worth saving, or that the man who’d risk dying for a town that isn’t worth saving is any kind of hero? Will Kane takes his final steps past the offices of Julius Weber, the watchmaker, reasserting the theme that civilization is running out of time, closeups come in a cluster when the clock strikes noon and, as the camera pulls back making Cooper’s Kane smaller and smaller, it’s clear that he’s puny. And he’s alone.
Or is he? This is High Noon‘s final deceit, and, in its resolution, High Noon sort of justifies every pragmatic argument anyone in town’s ever made. You can have your cake and eat it, too, this classic movie aims to say, with Howard Hawks and John Wayne teaming for 1959’s underrated and emotionally superior counter-argument, Rio Bravo, several years later. The evidence that this picture won the audience is strong. Look around, down to who rules the day, and mark High Noon as an artful example of anti-heroism that dominates and influences in fiction and in fact.
A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderfully rendered fairy tale from Hollywood’s most magical filmmaker. I laughed, I cried, and I thought about “the meaning of life” as the opening line of the movie asks the audience to do. This is such a rare combination in movies—and people, especially show business people, go on about how Hollywood used to make light and intelligent pictures and bemoan that they’re not like that anymore—that this Universal film, made with Amblin, Walden and others and based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron, deserves 100 percent support.
The best pictures often don’t get what they deserve and A Dog’s Purpose, with a target on it from a group opposed to almost any relationship between pets and humans from the start, is one of them, which I know firsthand. In fact, when the smear campaign against the movie was launched, courtesy of a selectively edited video released for distribution through a trashy website, its own stakeholders were effectively shamed into submission, burying heads in the sand, dodging questions and queries for clarification and cancelling the movie’s premiere. Those who spoke out in defense of the movie, including one of each of its writers, actors and producers and the director, Lasse Hallström (The Hundred-Foot Journey, My Life as a Dog, An Unfinished Life, Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), either came off as defensive or as if they were almost apologizing for the movie in advance. Josh Gad (TV’s The Comedians and Frozen), who does the voice of the dogs, took the bait and denounced purported footage in a controversial video rather than back the movie. Almost no one—not Universal, Amblin or Walden, or Mr. Hallström—chose to condemn the smear campaign, which sanctioned the flawed premise of the attack (that a picture, or pictures that are edited and arranged, is an argument) and passively legitimized a disturbing and potentially dangerous trend against the exercise of free speech. Going to see a movie should not require an act of bravery.
This time, I bought my own ticket on principle. I was joined by another guest when he found out I was going to see A Dog’s Purpose and I was asked again by two friends if they could come, too. The audience at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas was lively and diverse. They were mostly families with young children, single men and single women, seated separately and alone, and couples or groups of friends like us.
Like most of his movies, which are some of the most life-affirming movies ever made, director Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose plays to everyone capable of kindness, love and rationality. With a sharp and searching narration, as in An Unfinished Life and his seminal adaptation of John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules, intersecting plot lines and multiple characters converge into one poignant point about the whole of one’s life. The action starts, however, with themes of ownership, tagging and naming and what a dog uniquely means to a boy. The particular boy (Bryce Gheisar) to whom this dog first belongs reads comics and books about characters such as Captain America and Tom Sawyer and he grows into a fine teen-ager (K.J. Apa, TV’s Riverdale).
The wholesome, unspoiled quality of the boy’s character adds to the film’s conflict and grounds the movie’s other characters and subplots, building on subtle and gently delivered themes about dog people as peculiar, sad and lonely, and out of step with others, introverted and perhaps deferential to others, too. It’s a keen insight which is easily overlooked amid the dog tales, pathos and humor.
But it’s this type of skillfully woven idea that stirs one’s thoughts and moves one’s emotions in A Dog’s Purpose. So many of these tender truths dot the trail with wisdom, warmth and depth, such as a girl (Britt Robertson, Dan in Real Life, Tomorrowland) winning a prize for herself at a shooting gallery, a hardworking Midwestern father who slowly yet understandably lets himself go or a kid who’s jealous of the star quarterback. Then, there are the short but intelligent, clever or hilarious takes on the rivalry with cats, the sights and aromas of farms, or the irony of overindulging in hot dogs. That’s not to include how a dog’s hard work liberates a stoic policeman. Or that a dog’s companionship aligns in love and life with a college student. Along the multiple incarnations of a dog’s life, imaginatively depicted as foraging for a dog’s purpose, cultural points pop up—a Dynasty smackdown in the 1980s, guns in the 1970s, folk music in the 1960s—and A Dog’s Purpose comes in stunning pictures of a morning fog at the farm, a depressed home with an impoverised dog chained to a post, a happy dog bounding through the field to greet his master. It’s as sentimental as life and I suppose that if A Dog’s Purpose comes off as overly sentimental—a common complaint about Lasse Hallström’s movies—it’s in direct proportion to one’s own cynicism, as usual. This movie is treasure in every scene even when you see the scene coming.
With a cast including The Mod Squad‘s Peggy Lipton and Truth‘s Dennis Quaid in his finest performance since Far From Heaven—and a nice companion role to his quarterback Mike in Breaking Away—A Dog’s Purpose leaps from the screen with wonder, twists and an unequivocal answer to the meaning of life. In what may be his best movie since Chocolat, Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose routes life’s loneliness into the chilling, wrenching and marvelous experience of owning and having a dog and with the reward you would almost certainly come to expect.
Has writer and director Damien Chazelle made new magic following his outstanding feature film debut, Whiplash?
Yes, and he does so with depth and delight in a fusion of cities, methods and styles. La La Land, apparently in development for ten years, is both experimental and expressionistic, and it is not a musical as that term applies to classic movies. Also, Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March, The Notebook) as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone (Birdman, Aloha) as an actress, reuniting after Crazy, Stupid, Love, can’t be compared to classic movie stars. As with 2012’s memorably romantic The Artist, which La La Land resembles, it’s best to see, hear and take La La Land as it is.
Opening on the interchange of two of the oldest and newest freeways in Los Angeles, the film’s infused with youthful expression. Riding bikes, doing urban acrobatics, gymnastics and exuberant dancing on cars, lanes and guard rails, La La Land begins with singles getting out of cars to dance. It’s winter in the city of angels and the fantasy sets the movie’s tone as two young strangers have an LA encounter.
Depicting Los Angeles as the world’s vital center for artists and entrepreneurs, Chazelle introduces Stone’s actress in an extended musical sequence involving homage, deflation and the ideal. But he gives the first serious dialogue to Gosling’s musician. Pouring a cup of coffee and playing a vinyl record on the Columbia label, the artist struggles and creates. Amid solid, primary colors, piano playing slips Gosling’s Sebastian into another encounter with Stone’s Mia. The two meet after he’s fired by J.K. Simmons (Whiplash).
In long, sweeping widescreen shots, La La Land lets the two leads sing, dance and glide through auditions, deals, gigs and performances and, of course, newly discovered romance. Tracking the duet in four seasons, Chazelle deliberately spins every reason to hate, doubt or envy this beautiful metropolis into reality-based fanfare. Traffic jams, lone drivers everywhere you look, constant warmth and sunshine; Chazelle depicts everything you’ve heard that outsiders hate about LA as a catalyst for what and whom to love.
La La Land comes with realism. This film is not escapism, despite those minimizing it as such. In fact, what’s most distinctive about this picture is its blended, balanced sense of a whole life, specifically, the whole life of one who creates. Chazelle delves into how hard it is to create; how it’s lonely, stressful and agonizing, including why it costs and why the artist’s life is going to be to some degree cruel, not kind. Like the title, La La Land imports what haters regard as artificial about LA and strips it bare, showing that it’s where the artist creates work that adds value, power and life.
This is what matters in La La land, as detractors dubbed Los Angeles long ago, where the city stokes the virtue of productiveness and the productive enlighten the city. Those who envision, create and pursue goals, from Walt Disney to Damien Chazelle, dream, live, love, fail and refocus, as the movie’s turning point demonstrates when a first date to see Rebel Without a Cause (with its climactic scene at Griffith Park Observatory) at an old movie theater sparks an idea to realize the ideal. Springtime comes and goes, with more auditions, an awakening, more money to make and business to do, a classic convertible and a summertime montage of outings in LA. Slowly, songs get jazzier, people get heavier and more relaxed, and drink goes from wine to beer. Singer John Legend makes an entrance (and major movie debut) as a voice of realism and futurism, if not exactly egoism.
That this crucial mid-point comes with a band called The Messengers speaks to La La Land‘s sole deficiency. As an audio and visual feast, it is too pronounced in certain respects and, yet, Justin Hurwitz’s melodies are muted. Don’t take this to mean that they are not good songs. They fit the context, tone and mood. But they make the audience more aware of the movie than the moment. Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul elevate the tunes and the movie. So do Mandy Moore’s choreography, costumes by Mary Zophres and Linus Sandgren’s photography. Again, do not expect the caliber of an MGM musical in look, song and dance.
As Mia and Sebastian strive to bring out the best in themselves, autumn casts change in their LA story. With important references to and scenes in Boulder City, Paris and Boise, each loaded with meaning, the music stops, an alarm sounds and someone storms out in the volatility of hard earned magic, love and life. Failure, rejection and regret are depicted with nods, symbols and cues to classic film points, from umbrellas to The Band Wagon. Los Angeles is essentialized and matched to its organic art of storytelling, and heartbreak, in multicolored tablecloths, downtown LA’s Angels Flight and Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont.
When someone says, “This is home” it isn’t long before someone else says, “You’re a storyteller.” La La Land dramatizes in color, music and dance what knowing, understanding and bridging these two statements means.
Pasting a singularly eye-popping segment involving Tom Everett Scott (That Thing You Do) in a small but critical role, a silhouette and a reference to The Red Balloon, La La Land exits with one long, last take toasting the visionary who is both rebel and romantic. It’s a hymn to Los Angeles (and its cousin, Paris), celebrating with lightness and seriousness that LA is where idealists make what’s ideal become something meaningful and real.
Turning from his first feature film, St. Vincent, a comedy starring Bill Murray as an alcoholic who forms a bond with a boy, to a major motion picture about black women who broke NASA’s color barrier to do calculations for the manned space program, Hollywood screenwriter and director Theodore Melfimakes an important transition with Hidden Figures, which First Lady Michelle Obama screened last week at the White House.
Having recently seen Fox’s Hidden Figures, which debuts in movie theaters on Christmas Day and expands in January, I wanted to ask about the story, script, score, meaning and production. I spoke with Melfi, whom I had interviewed in Los Angeles in 2014 (read my interview with him about St. Vincenthere), in an exclusive interview by telephone on the day he attended the White House screening as the First Lady’s guest.
This is an edited transcript (with minor spoilers).
Scott Holleran: What was the hardest scene to shoot?
Theodore Melfi: Taraji [P. Henson, who portrays Katherine Johnson] blowing up at Kevin Costner’s character—because of the subject matter and it was the last two days of the shoot—day 41—and we were all so close and really happy and cohesive. So, to do that scene there was emotionally draining. Everyone there, all the white guys, and half the crew was crying. We did seven or eight takes. I was trying to contain her for longer as Taraji sometimes came in with all the energy.
Scott Holleran: Which scene differs most from your script and why?
Octavia Spencer, director Theodore Melfi, and Janelle Monae on set of ‘Hidden Figures’
Theodore Melfi: Any scene with the three women having fun with each other. Half the stuff at the barbecue was made up because they were having such fun. The banter over [Mahershala Ali’s character] was improvised. So was the scene at the beginning of the movie—with them chasing the cop car. I just let them go.
Scott Holleran: Is your movie about racism or exceptionalism?
Theodore Melfi: Exceptionalism. The movie’s [about] a meritocracy. NASA was one of the first places for merit in government work and it’s an actual place which was seen as progressive. It’s still seen that way today in terms of [inclusive] hires.
Scott Holleran: Did someone named Al Harrison, played in the picture by Kevin Costner, break down that barrier?
Theodore Melfi: I don’t know because he’s a composite character. When [Katherine’s] supervisor found out about the [fact of her having to run a distance to the race-segregated toilet] he did have it removed.
Scott Holleran: What is the womens’ and families’ estimate of the film?
Theodore Melfi: Katherine Johnson and her family are over the moon. She’s 98 years old and we screened it in her hometown of Hampton, Virginia. She came with her two daughters and they were crying. Afterwards, the family said that what they’re most grateful for is the treatment of her husband [played in the movie by Mahershala Ali], the family and kids and how they were sharing rooms. Also, those are direct quotes from him at the dinner table scene.
Scott Holleran: Have you seen 2016’s other movie involving racism in Virginia, Loving?
Theodore Melfi: Not yet. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Scott Holleran: What did the other credited screenwriter, Allison Schroeder, add to the screenplay?
Theodore Melfi: Allison wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Then, I got my own pass and did my own thing with it. She had a movie that followed the women outside of NASA—there were a couple of Tupperware parties—and I wanted to balance it.
Scott Holleran: Why did you make John Glenn, who was 40, younger?
Theodore Melfi: It was his spirit. We tried guys that age and we couldn’t get that boyish spirit.
Scott Holleran: Your first two feature movies depict the physicality of the individual’s struggle to achieve. Why?
Melfi with Monae
Theodore Melfi: I do this thing called 50 questions that [my wife] Kim gave me. She got them from Larry Moss—this great acting teacher—and I answer these 50 questions for each character. I answer as if I’m the character. Then, I give that to each actor and I see how each actor feels about the character’s posture and [and physical movements, mannerisms, etc.] and I get into that. Then, I keep that posture and the way they walk [in the film]—like I told Janelle [Monae, who portrays Mary Jackson]; you kind of bounce and lead with your face. But Taraji [as Katherine] leads with her mind, so there’s a pressure on her shoulders which kinda pulls her down. Octavia Spencer [as Dorothy Vaughan] leads with her heart. [In St. Vincent], Bill Murray drags. The actor does the work. You don’t talk about it—it’s ingrained—and you’re free to let it go. Taraji P. Henson came up with the idea of running [to the bathroom] in high heels and that’s how she had to run. [Composer] Pharrell Williams wrote the song [“Runnin'”] after reading the script. He wrote that song before we started shooting.
Scott Holleran:What would Bill Murray’s character fromSt. Vincentsay about these three mathematically inclined NASA women?
Theodore Melfi: That he wishes they could do his taxes.
Scott Holleran: Who is your favorite astronaut?
Theodore Melfi: John Glenn because, even before he came to NASA, he was a Marine, he broke the land speed record and he was helping minorities and getting welfare off the ground. He was always the type to look you in the eye. He’s the best that this country can be.
Scott Holleran: Is Kirsten Dunst’s character a villain?
Theodore Melfi: Her character is ignorant. That’s what the movie is for me. The movie is summed up in Octavia Spencer’s response to Dunst’s character: “…and I know you probably believe that.” That, to me, is the core of racism; people don’t even know how they treat blacks, gays, women, [and anyone they consider different]—because, if they did, most good people couldn’t sleep any more. [Kirsten Dunst’s character] Vivian Mitchell just doesn’t know that black people shouldn’t use a different water fountain because of her upbringing. So I don’t know whether she’s a villain. Not seeing is as bad as not doing something about [injustice] and, at some point, everyone is complicit. The same goes for Kevin Costner’s character. Yes, he does the right thing, but he should have known about [Katherine’s working conditions]. Necessity is the mother of breaking down that bathroom sign.
Scott Holleran: What is the single most admirable quality of these women and why?
Theodore Melfi: Fortitude. Because it shows an example for today to not [only] look left and right and backwards—you don’t get there—you have to go forward.
Scott Holleran: Is there a scene you would change?
Theodore Melfi: Yeah. I would probably change the scene when Mary [Janelle Monae’s character] comes into the capsule room to see [NASA’s] Karl Zielinski. I would recast that actor.
Melfi directing Taraji P. Henson on set of ‘Hidden Figures’
Scott Holleran: Taraji P. Henson has had critical and commercial success with her Empire character. How did you purge Cookie Lyon from Hidden Figures?
Theodore Melfi: I took Taraji to meet the real Katherine Johnson. I sat with her and pointed to her elegance, her quietness and her posture—and Taraji P. Henson just absorbed it all because when you’re sitting with Katherine Johnson, you’re sitting with royalty. I kept reminding her with inflection or mannerism to resist the urge to lash out or jolt. It was a more reserved time.
Scott Holleran: Had you seen her in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?
Theodore Melfi: Yes. That’s where I fell in love with her. That’s who she really is.
Scott Holleran: Janelle Monae’s appearing in another 2016 movie. Have you seen her in Moonlight?
Theodore Melfi: I haven’t. My screener’s at home [in Los Angeles]. Tonight, we’re going to the White House [for a screening of Hidden Figures]. Apparently, Michelle Obama saw the movie and loved it, so she wanted to show it.
Theodore Melfi: I did. What it did for me is show that she’s one of the best actors in the world. It also made me rediscover Kevin. He’s just a great actor.
Scott Holleran: You’ve depicted the unit cohesion these women accomplished at NASA. Were you aware of the need to portray similarities as well as differences?
Theodore Melfi: That is the original message of the script and the writing—it was, ‘let’s all get to the peak together or we don’t get there at all’—and they are extremely proud of their work and NASA. These women are extremely patriotic and they love America, so it was very important to me not to make NASA a bad guy—they were complicit in the times but they got out and made the change—and it’s almost biblical, like Jesus on the cross saying ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.” The movie opens on Christmas Day.
Scott Holleran: What advice do you have for a director making a racially-themed movie?
Theodore Melfi: Be honest. We’ve seen the brutality of [the] civil rights [struggle] and slavery but I was being honest and true about what happened in Hampton, Virginia. There was unconscious bias and systemic racism—not getting promotions and equal pay—and they had segregation. I would say just be as honest as you can without being slick in either direction. There’s a lot of footage of the protest scene with [the menacing] dogs, so I had to resist the urge to be too exciting. You have to work hard to be objective and subtle.
What was it like to be black, female and exceptionally skilled in 1961? This question is at the core of writer and director Theodore Melfi‘s Hidden Figures, a topical, authentic and fascinating look back at mid-20th century American exceptionalism from a fresh and life-affirming perspective. Melfi (St. Vincent), who co-wrote the screenplay, probes beyond racism, making this movie fuller than others in the mid-century American true story genre (Selma comes to mind).
Hidden Figures is as logical as math. As with 42, the movie is direct and linear, so what you see and get is a depiction of the woman of ability in three workers for the U.S. space program: Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monae, Moonlight), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, Black or White) and Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson, Cookie on Empire)—all working to launch an American astronaut into orbit.
Prefaced by a flashback that sets this up with a drama of the gifted child, to bend a phrase from Alice Miller, Hidden Figures (based on a book) starts with the trio stranded on a Virginia roadside. Spencer’s Dorothy solves a car problem. Mary sasses. Katherine imagines. A trajectory is charted from there.
The direction is upward, with a few twists and offshoots. Tracking the Soviet Sputnik satellite, which posed a threat to the United States, NASA’s Mercury and Friendship programs and the effort to put John Glenn into orbit, Melfi and company recreate rational action led by a boss portrayed by Kevin Costner (Black or White). Costner’s character personifies the secular humanist theme, reminding his numbers-crunching, Langley, Virginia, team that calculations for putting man into space ultimately redound to the individual and one’s values here on earth.
“Look past numbers”, he urges, a piece of wisdom which applies to today’s aggregated and automated industries—especially to those working in government programs—and choose instead to think. When he needs someone who knows math, up from the team’s pool of segregated black women, despite the instant desegregation, comes a particularly bright Negro named Katherine (Henson). This lady knows advanced math. More crucial to the boss, the mission and her life, she knows how to tune out distraction and avoid any tendency to rationalize. Similarly, and appropos of their abilities, Mary and Dorothy put their goals on track, too, while helping to put John Glenn in space. Glenn, who later became a U.S. senator from Ohio who propagated the welfare state and who recently died, is portrayed as a freethinker.
The script serves each character’s turn. For example, Dorothy (Spencer), going against a bureaucrat (Kirsten Dunst in a career best performance), strives to match her skills to her livelihood. From tinkering with the stalled car to being first to step up to face bad news (the film tracks the civil rights movement, too), her vigorous leadership is integral in her everyday life. Sassy Mary (Monae doing a fine job) chooses to focus her smart mouth on breaking a racist barrier and becoming an engineer. She’s also unashamed to express sexual desire for a white man and do what a white man (who’s a Jew) says he wants her to do as she builds the case for her own cause.
The women in Hidden Figures act for selfishness, not for altruism.
This is undeniable; they do not act for the sake of the race, tribe, sex, God or others. Each woman bases her identity on character and her self-esteem on knowledge gained by her reasoning mind. Dorothy, in a triumphant scene, chooses to reclaim property which she properly regards as hers, explaining the context to her son, who thinks Mom is stealing from the government. Dorothy does this to acquire knowledge, amplifying the point. Octavia Spencer (Snowpiercer, Black or White, Zootopia) portrays Dorothy Vaughan’s determination with precision in a measured performance which underscores that she is one of the screen’s best actresses. So, too, does Henson as Katherine, who meets a man (Mahershala Ali, the drug dealer in Moonlight) during her NASA tenure.
Katherine pushes, tests and strives to be her best against extreme prejudice and this, too, is undeniable. Rarely has the toilet’s role in the American history of ostracizing others been so memorably dramatized as in this sequence of workplace coffee scenes leading up to a total breakdown. Melfi captures the emotional damage inflicted by those moved by collectivism—in this case, by its most primitive variant, racism—upon the individual. He does this through strong and subtle character development in performances which all shine, down to the smallest roles, including his wife Kimberly Quinn’s as Ruth and Jim Parsons’ as lead engineer.
The three leads (and Costner) excel at the top of the cast, showing that each woman of the mind simply tries to do her best work; moreover, each woman enjoys her work and knows its value, which is why the film’s positivism is a crucial, bold and skillfully made decision. Activism becomes an urgent practical necessity born of the clash between progress and bad philosophy, i.e., traditionalism and collectivism.
This is what makes Hidden Figures inspiring. These women were pioneers, yet they were exceptional, producing impeccable results for the greatest nation on earth. Melfi recognizes this, too, and he does so with his trademark poignancy and humor (see his St. Vincent if you haven’t already) in scene after scene. These three women were ambitious, proud and selfish—qualities we’re taught to reject as unsavory—and he honors them both for acting as egoists and as Americans who refuse to opt out of a partly unjust, partly free and changing society. Mary, Dorothy and Katherine, as portrayed in Hidden Figures, act as if they know that their defiance of the U.S. government is an assertion of their moral right to pursue happiness. Each unmistakably acts for her own sake. Yet each acts as unmistakably as a patriotic American. Hidden Figures shows that this alignment was especially, powerfully hard and admirable for the black woman of the mind.
But you need not hold selfishness as the top virtue to find something wondrous and enlightening in the stories of these Hidden Figures.
Though it tends to come off as too good to be true, skimming too much of their lives, Hidden Figures displays a certain love for one’s work—depicting reverence for productiveness—in carrying out a mission which concretizes America at her best. In this way, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures dramatizes that, in America, the individual who calculates what’s in her self-interest can—despite whatever others and the government do to keep her down—reach for the stars and achieve whatever she wants.