It’s easy to dismiss Hidden Figures as just another manufactured but effective way to grab some awards attention. In many ways it is, because the film hits all the right marks that would make it a strong contender for garnering nominations in major award shows. It’s pleasant, inoffensive, and safe. There’s a clear struggle in the film that the characters must overcome, and they do so in a way that is genuinely inspirational instead of cynical. Hidden Figures is definitely all of these things, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Perhaps the biggest praise that can be given to the film (apart from the performances) is what it isn’t. First and foremost, it isn’t preachy. It comes close to it, but just when you think it’s going to jump over that thin line between being meaningful and being forced, the film shows restraint at just the right moment. Similarly, it provides just the right amount of sentimentality without going into melodramatic territory. All of this might sound like praises with huge caveats attached to them, but for a film like Hidden Figures that’s trying to send out an important message, it’s high praise indeed. No one likes being preached to, and Hidden Figures thankfully doesn’t do that. It realizes that its message is already important and doesn’t feel the need to overdramatize things, thereby insulting its audience and overshadowing its message at the same time.
It should also be taken into consideration that Hidden Figures is almost like a family film for all ages. If there’s one demographic that could benefit greatly from the film’s message, it’s the children, particularly African American girls. But at the same time, the film is about mathematicians doing complicated calculations at NASA, which is hardly the type of story that would keep a child or teenager’s attention. There will be exceptions of course, but in general the film isn’t necessarily friendly to a younger audience in terms of its premise. What’s obvious is that the filmmakers have tried to make Hidden Figures at least appeal to them by giving it a more upbeat and heartwarming tone, which they succeed at.
All his, unfortunately, comes at the price of the film being unable to take the story a step further due to its self-imposed limitations. It gives enough gravitas to the more adult themes of racism that can be easily grasped by children, but this sometimes results in oversimplifying its themes to achieve the goal of being accessible to people of all ages. The final product is an overbearingly safe but pleasant film that neither fails nor succeeds at being extraordinary. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means that Hidden Figures is hardly going to become a memorable piece of cinema for years to come.
Maybe this is what the film needed to be in order to achieve all of its important goals, but I don’t think a film has to be average in order to be inspirational for all ages. Regardless, Hidden Figures does manage to be inspirational, because the struggles of the three lead characters can be universally understood. And the film’s success will hopefully mean that more overlooked stories of its kind can be told in the future.
Still, Hidden Figures feels a bit two-dimensional because in its aim of being accessible to as many people as possible, there ultimately isn’t much depth or subtlety to the film. What you see is what you get, and the film doesn’t really aim to be more challenging than that. Of course, not every film needs to be a thought-provoking piece of character study, but just because it doesn’t need to be doesn’t make it any less impressive compared to films that manage to be dramatically graceful while still being compelling. Being simple doesn’t have to automatically result in mediocrity. Ultimately Hidden Figures is innocuous without being trite, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.