Hidden Figures is the kind of winning biopic I can easily champion. It joins a film like Queen of Katwe from last fall, in presenting a story I was not too informed about, with enough confidence to easily please those in search of a good story. The film does little to distance itself from other historical dramas of its nature, but a mainstream film like this that matches up well to the many other films about famous white men who overcame adversity is worth giving notice to. That this film accomplishes so much by focusing on smart women who prove themselves by being good at their work and kind is just a testament to a film that can make certain subjects so cinematically interesting. Having now made a ton of money and netting 3 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Hidden Figures proved to be just what many were looking for. Now they can find it on Blu-ray.
During the time of The Right Stuff, which found the United States in a competition with the Soviet Union to get a man into space and rule supreme as far as spaceflight capability was concerned, many people were involved. This film puts focus on the black women who worked in the segregated West Area Computers division for NASA. Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine Johnson, a mathematical genius who was instrumental in helping out with the calculations for Project Mercury during the early 1960s.
The film also features Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, another math expert who became the acting head of the West Area Computers. Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, a mathematician with eyes on becoming an aerospace engineer. As three friends living in a time when the fight for civil rights was still going on, it is the work they do and their reserved personalities among many who would rather chose to put them down that paves the way for this largely untold story to unfold.
While holding onto this sense of grace among their white coworkers and superiors, there is plenty of personality to see within each of these ladies. Once given different positions, the ladies are separate when working, but do have a good sense of chemistry between them when coming together on other occasions. Additionally, we learn just enough about their personal lives to know they are just regular people who face up against a lot of ignorance, but have not lost their sense of spirit. Henson’s Johnson gets the most character work, as we spend time with her family (she’s widowed with three daughters) and a possible new suitor played by Mahershala Ali.
Based on the novel of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures does well to balance the racial politics with the attempts by director Theordore Melfi (St. Vincent) to make intense math calculations visually exciting. Being an appropriately PG-rated film, the nastiness seen by various white people that go along with the segregation laws is enough to make the audience scoff in disgust and be further impressed by what we see our lead heroines go through. At the same time, the film plays up the moments of triumph for the various characters by simply having them perform their duty, without much in the way of expected rewards.
The film also knows how to handle what’s important. Kevin Costner has a supporting role as Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group and it was quite worthwhile to see him be a man so past the concept of discrimination that he’s more surprised by what work is or isn’t done, rather than take notice of how Johnson is being treated differently by the other white men in his group. Jim Parsons’ Paul Stafford is among those who is forced to find a begrudging level of respect for what Johnson does. Meanwhile, an underplayed game of one-upmanship is seen between Spencer’s Vaughan and Kirsten Dunst as her supervisor, Vivian Jackson.
Lacking some of the elegance found in more nuanced screenplays, if Hidden Figures misses any marks, it comes from how precise some of the dialogue comes across at times. Having characters namecheck Brown v. Board, among other specific events, works as enough of an easy reason to make this film work on a universal level. I just wish the restraint found in certain characterizations could have been applied to how direct the dialogue is to better mask the biopic formula that is at play.
Less of an issue is the production values. There are some decent special effects combined with archival footage to deliver on having scenes of rockets heading into space, but much of the film is set in regular offices. Much like Apollo 13 however, Hidden Figures does well to find ways for the audience to be continually enthralled by characters working out complex math problems in tiny locations. There’s also a general sense of fluidity that matches the importance of the story with the lively soundtrack produced by Pharrell Williams, with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch helping out with work on the score.
There is a great mesh of ideas at play seen throughout with Hidden Figures. It has the skeleton of many films you see about important individuals that made some sort of difference, but handles itself very well. The cast is uniformly good (even Costner), with Henson shining bright enough to have you separate her from the Cookie persona seen on TV’s Empire. That this film comes at a time when the country could use a lot more positive regard towards working together only helps when considering how well we watch this negotiation of math and racial politics. Do the math yourself and step up to watch this obscure bit of history come to life.
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Clarity/Detail: Somewhat surprisingly, Hidden Figures was shot on film. The result of this Blu-ray transfer amounts to a terrific picture that allows for plenty of appreciation for what it accomplishes. For a modestly budgeted film, the period production values all look great and this Blu-ray reflects that well. Detail stands out, particularly in the NASA sets, which feature a variety of sets and props to highlight. The image has the level of clarity that lets you appreciate all that went into such a character-focused film.
Depth: Character placement is important here, given how the film stages separation between certain people. As a result the level of dimensionality serves the Blu-ray presentation well. No signs of flatness.
Black Levels: Black levels are deep and inky, doing a fine job of showing the instances of negative space quite well.
Color Reproduction: Colors play great here. The most comes from the various outfits the leads wear, which is purposefully matched against the general blandness of their surroundings. It pays off, as colors pop. Even when it comes to some of the visually enhanced backgrounds, colors don’t suddenly soften up, which tends to happen with other films. Here, it all works out well.
Flesh Tones: The way we focus in on characters is another benefit here, as facial textures play quite well on disc. Detail once again plays a large and positive role here.
Noise/Artifacts: Nothing to be found.
Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Dynamics: Fox went above and beyond for the audio track with this 7.1 lossless track, but these women went above and beyond for their country, so I guess it makes sense. With that in mind, you get a great feel for the variety of sounds in this film, given the score, dialogue and plenty of other aspects. There really is plenty to take in and you get a great sense of all of that here.
Low Frequency Extension: The big moment of blastoff actually allows for some oomph along with some other historically related moments, along with the score, which do plenty to give life to the LFE channel.
Surround Sound Presentation: Just as these women had to balance their skills and let it show in their work, the balance on this audio track plays well to the surround aspect. The rear channels get plenty to do given all the background action going on and bits of ambient noise that come through cleanly enough. The front and center channels get plenty to do as well, taking on much of the weight, but it never falters.
Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.
Hidden Figures is not a film I would expect to get too much in-depth material on as far as the production, however a look at the history could be examined. Fortunately, this set of extras allows for some pretty solid looks at the film’s basis and more.
- Audio Commentary by Theodore Melfi and Taraji P. Henson – Fairly entertaining and full of little tidbits. A bit dry overall, but it’s nice to get the writer/director and star in the same room.
- Deleted Scenes (HD, 10:14) – Features optional commentary by director Theodore Melfi.
- It All Adds Up – The Making of Hidden Figures (HD, 41:46) – It’s a set of EPK stuff mixed with some really solid interviews and looks at the history that led to this film.
- No Limits – The Life of Katherine Johnson
- The Right People for the Job
- Recreating an Era
- A Spiritual Journey – The Music of the Film
- Moving the Decimal – Honoring Katherine Johnson
- Hidden Figures: Filming in Georgia (HD, 5:15) – A look at the film’s locations.
- Gallery (HD)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:25)
- DVD Copy of the Film
- Digital HD Copy of the Film
Hidden Figures easily deserves all the acclaim it received. It became a smash hit, as it captured the right balance between struggle and heartwarming story of smart people taking appropriate measures. It is only helped by solid performances from the leads and efficient filmmaking. The Blu-ray follows through by presenting a strong and clear image, matched with a great audio track. Add to that a solid set of bonus features and you have a film that can easily sit with other inspirational dramas on your shelf.
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