Tuesday, January 17, 2017


HIDDEN FIGURES is APOLLO 13 for nerds. I can’t recommend it enough. You probably know the premise by now – it’s the true(ish) story of three African-American women in the early ‘60s who worked for NASA and were key players in getting our astronauts up into space and more importantly, back down again safely.

It attacks discrimination on every front – racial, gender, declared majors – but doesn’t clobber you over the head with it. This isn’t DJANGO for pencil pushers. There’s no Helen Reddy "Hear me roar" anthem. It’s three “BEAUTIFUL MINDS” with a dash of NORMA RAE and THE HELP.  Or IMITATION GAME with a happy ending. 

Probably because the story is true(ish), but I found HIDDEN FIGURES to be a stirring celebration of intelligence and science – two things that many Americans today don’t believe in. Oh, for the days when complicated important decisions were left to qualified people.

And what a perfect movie for the Motion Picture Academy – a film about diversity that audiences are actually going to see. The cast is certainly Oscar-worthy. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as the Three Mathketeers were superb. And Kevin Costner proved he didn’t have to play an over-the-hill baseball player to be interesting. Also noteworthy is Jim Parsons, who in a big stretch for him played an uptight egghead.  I hardly recognized him. 

For all the hype the Oscar-grab movies are currently receiving, this modest little tale is more satisfying. And it does my heart good to see it doing so well at the boxoffice. So again, go see HIDDEN FIGURES. Travel back to a simpler time; a time where we outsmarted Russia.


Rashad Khan said...

What is "true(ish)" about the movie, Ken? Emphasis on the "(ish)" part.

Jason Roberts said...

I agree with your review completely.

I would love to read a review from you on the movie: "Queen of Katwe"

Stephen Marks said...

Did you watch it at the Apollo Theater? Must have been difficult for women of any colour to break through at NASA in the 60's so good for you ladies, nice giant leap. Men are fools!

Matt, Westwood CA said...

Friday question...

I've always been a big fan of David Lloyd, one of the all-time great sitcom writers. When people talk about so much writing talent influenced by THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, I've always noticed the continuity of writing talent that spawned from MTM to TAXI to CHEERS and FRASIER. For writing and directing, the one common thread is David Lloyd and James Burrows are the only ones to write and direct episodes of all 4 series. Since you worked with and knew David Lloyd, I'd love to know your personal favorite of his scripts from each show. I know you attended the famous Chuckles episode filming, if that is your favorite MTM, please note second favorite as he wrote so many great mtm's.

Midwest John said...

If you promise that Kevin Costner does not attempt any accents, especially a Boston accent, I will happily go see this movie. The topic is certainly interesting.

Peter said...

A movie with black leads that's about science. I bet that's drawing the crowds in throughout the Bible Belt. Any state where they have all references to evolution edited out of IMAX documentaries, chant "Drain the swamp" and believe Earth is 7000 years old is not going to be interested in a movie like this. You see, it's all part of the liberal Hollywood agenda to show things like black people and science. Much better would be marathon screenings of Chuck Norris movies where each ticket holder also gets a free semi-automatic assault rifle, a pocket sized copy of the Bible and a confederate flag. Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeehaw!

Seriously, though, I wonder how the posters for the first Jurassic Park went down with moviegoers in the red states, given the tagline was "An adventure 65 million years in the making"? Did they tear them down or write over them to say "An adventure 6500 years in the making by the lord"?

If 2001: A Space Odyssey was made today, there'd be screaming protests outside theatres for its "Dawn of Man" sequence and Twitter would be exploding with furious creationists like Kirk Cameron foaming at the mouth.

Hobbes said...

We saw it last weekend and loved it. Excellent lead cast and a great story. I cried at the end, especially as the end credits rolled and we see Katherine Johnson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015. Imagine how much further along we as a country would be if it weren't for so much racism, sexism, and xenophobia. These ladies excelled in spite of it.

Peter said...

By the way, just to clarify, I'm not the Peter who started that silly argument with Doug last week over Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep! If he keeps posting silly comments, I might have to add something to my name to differentiate myself.

Sue said...

Ken, I couldn't figure out how to leave you a message about your podcast elsewhere. (BTW, your review puts me over the top on whether to see Hidden Figures or not, so thanks.)
Your second episode is so great. (I found your first one to be a bit formal and stiff - and that's definitely not the guy who writes this funny blog which I savor every day.) I loved your comments about the short interludes and, well, it just seemed looser and more smart-ass - a trait I've come to expect from you! Two really fun stories about revenge on the MASH cast and the interview with the PD at the radio station. Can't wait for next week.

Ken Levine said...

Thanks, Sue. As I go along I'm sure things will get even looser still. I'm feeling my way along. Eventually I'll get into a groove. Thanks for hanging in. Lots of fun stuff is planned for future weeks.


rockgolf said...

I went with my wife, kids and grandkids (14 & 12) and we all just loved this film. I particularly wanted my grandkids to see it because they are mixed race and wanted a positive message. But this is not a "message" movie, it is simply a great movie.

As for Rashad Khan's question about what was true"ish", Tajiri is working in an office filled with white men in the early 1960s and yet there is no evidence of smoking. In real life, I'll bet the air in that room was blue! There are some things that are just too impossible to believe.

Peter said...

Ken, please do an interview with the beautiful and talented Jackie Swanson!

Tom Glickman said...

Can I be honest? I enjoyed Hidden Figures a lot, but wondered whether the racial subtext was, um, over the top. I realize that seems a bizarre thing to say, but hear me out:

Throughout the movie, the three black girls were consistently portrayed as EXTREME outsiders. When they walked into a white-dominated room, the entire room fell to silence and stared at them. The white NASA guys were regularly portrayed as always missing the solution, and the black girls were always the one to give it to them.

It's all good for the narrative, but was it over the top? Was it really like that in real life? I found myself watching the movie with a sense of cynicism: I know there were severe racial problems during that time, but was I watching a true portrayal, or was I watching a 2016 exaggeration reinterpreted according to 2016 political correctness standards, designed to underscore how many race problems we have in society in 2016-17?

Tricky problem, obviously. I know we live in a post-modern and (we wish) a post-racial society, but sometimes I miss the simplicity of the 80's with Diff'rent Strokes and The Cosby Show where racial issues were touched on from time to time, but mostly we just enjoyed good quality drama and good people and good writing without thinking too much about the color of their skin. Hidden Figures felt over-the-top as if it was compensating for decades of white superiority.

-Tom (for what it's worth -- a mixed-race man)

Andrew said...

Peter (@ 7:02 am), thanks so much for reminding us all that bigotry is not limited to racial and gender matters.

Seriously, it's that sort of attitude that is causing people to reject the liberal status quo. When was the last time you talked to a person from a red state, and listened to them without condescension?

emmphx said...

Hi Ken, as someone who electronically knows the granddaughter of one of the black women computers, what is the "ish" part you refer to? (I'm also an engineer in aerospace, BTW). True that the experiences of 400 women were condensed but for the most part, especially the Taraji P Henson character as well as her husband are spot on. (And they are still with us.) Enquiring minds are referred to https://www.macalester.edu/news/2015/02/hidden-human-computers/

Buttermilk Sky said...

I'm pretty sure that women of any race working for NASA in the sixties in any capacity beyond receptionist would have made the room go quiet. But I appreciate the review and will seek out the movie. Thanks, Ken.

Brian said...

Thanks for the review. Can't wait to see it. Love the podcast. Keep them coming!

BADuBois said...

A great, great movie indeed... and the biggest true(ish) part which is entirely not true is showing Langley (where the movie is set) as mission control for Glenn's mission. At that time, mission control for all the Mercury missions was at Cape Canaveral in Florida, where it remained until moving to Houston during the Gemini era.

Chris said...

@ Peter (7:02):
@ Andrew (10:59):
Thank you.

Ken, I agree with you completely, and while I loved "La La Land" and am pretty sure they can start engraving those Oscars for it already, I would be thrilled with a "Hidden Figures" upset for Best Picture. Of course it hasn't been nominated yet, but we gave it a WGA nod, and it got my vote for the final award, so I have hopes. A perfect movie? No. But I haven't given my heart to a movie in this way (even "La La Land") in quite some time.

Mary Stella said...

I saw the movie last weekend and loved it. So much, in fact, that I've downloaded the book. I was also pretty pissed off that I'd not learned about these women and their invaluable contributions back when I was in school in the 60s and 70s.

Kosmo13 said...

>>what is the "ish" part you refer to?

I'm skeptical, too, that John Glenn still had that much hair in the early 1960's.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Snark #1 - about "outsmarting Russia".

Along with the context of this film, that brings to mind a big regret I had as a teenage fan of the space race. I regret that the Soviets did not win the race to the moon. A big motivater of technology is war - even a "cold" one. If the Soviets had been up to the challenge we might have a significant low-orbit and moon infrastructure today.

Snark #2 - about Costner being "interesting" in a non-jock role.

In JFK Costner pretty much stole every scene written for his Atty Garrison role. In Thirteen Days he did a fine job as giving the emotional POV for "the rest of us" during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Might there be a little jock-envy going on here? Costner looks great in athletic roles - swinging a bat or a driver.

(not to mention bathing with Susan Sarandon - hell, THAT makes me envious!)

Snark #3 - about the film being "true-ish".

That's a tease - say why it looked true-ish (smokeless conference rooms and mission control settings notwithstanding).

In any case thanks for the heads up on this one.

Jahn Ghalt said...

I'd like to hear an "insider" account of how the book deal came down. It seems that the film wrapped, in May 2016, several months before the book was published (September 2016). I believe this is unusual.

For instance, excepting 2001: A Space Odyessy most of Kubrick's films were based on novels that had already been published (2001 was a years-long collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke).

I wonder what other films were produced before the source books publishing date?

Andy Rose said...

@Jahn Galt: It's not unusual for the film rights to a marketable non-fiction story to be purchased before the book is finished, since the filmmakers know the general arc of the story before the text is completed. Buying early allows them to release the film while there's still some potential heat from the book, since making a movie requires so much lead time. For example, the rights to All the President's Men were bought shortly before publication, but it was another two years before the film was completed.

Brian Fies said...

There are a lot of articles listing what's true and "trueish" in "Hidden Figures," which I loved despite being a big space nerd myself and cringing at some of the history and science. People were invented and timelines were manipulated to make events more contemporaneous and dramatic than they were.

Costner and Parson's characters were composites of real people. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) became a full NASA engineer in 1958, four years before Glenn's flight. Evidently, she's also the one who ran across campus to use the colored bathroom; the real Katherine Johnson said she just used the one that was closest, and also said she was easily accepted by the team rather than being frozen out and told to empty the trash. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) was promoted to NASA's first black supervisor in 1948 (that's forty-eight). Johnson did confirm the math for Glenn's flight, but she had a couple of days to do it, not a few minutes while Glenn was tapping his foot on top of the tower. And don't get space nerds talking about the risk of Glenn's capsule skipping off the atmosphere and leaving Earth orbit, because it couldn't have.

That kind of thing.

That's the movies. It's not a documentary. What "Hidden Figures" did better than any fiction or nonfiction movie I've seen is put the Space Race in the context of its times. We used the best technology available to blast men into space while coffee pots were still marked "white" and "colored." That's the deeper truth that moved me when I saw the film.

Diane D said...

Tom Glickman
Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful comment. As some one who grew up in the Deep South in that time period, I can tell you that my experience would lead me to say yes, it is a little exaggerated. Observing my elders with the curiosity of a teenager, in most every situation, I would see a few of the most educated and admirable people behaving in a way that made me proud and showed me what kind of person I wanted to be.
I loved this movie, however. There is enough truth to it that a little poetic license is understandable when you consider what these women did and what they surely had to put up with.

Glenn Eibe said...

Ken - A quick note to state the obvious - Hollywood and Levine is off to a great start. May I offer a suggestion that’s probably crossed your mind already – interview your dad for the podcast! Perhaps a new regular segment will emerge: “When Levine Met Levine”.

YEKIMI said...

Looser podcasts? Consume lots of slcohol....but not so much that you end up sounding like Foster Brooks.

@ Brian Fies: Dorothy Vaughan couldn't have started working for NASA in 1948 as NASA wasn't created until Ocotober 1st 1958 by President Eisenhower. She could have worked for NACA which was the predecessor of NASA.

@ Tom Glickman: When they walked into a white-dominated room, the entire room fell to silence and stared at them. It's all good for the narrative, but was it over the top? Was it really like that in real life?
Yes it probably was. My father was from North Carolina and had moved back there in the mid 90s. I went down to visit him about 20 years ago and he lived in a more rural part of the state on some road out in the country. I stopped and asked a couple of Afircan-American teens where the street was located. They turned and looked at each other and then just turned and pointed down the road and never said a word. I stopped at a small store they were close to and went in to get a soda and the manager comes up to me and asked "What were you talking to them 'Nee-gros' [actually how he pronounced it] about?" and giving me a real dirty look. Gave him a "WTF?" look and told him I was just asking for directions, he just turned and walked away. Told my dad about it and he said that's the way it is down there....African-Americans and white people do not interact otherwise someone's going to getting into a shitload of trouble and the two African-American teens were probably speechless that a white person had talked to them. And with NCs stupid "bathroom bill", I can guess that thing haven't changed all that much 20 years later let alone almost 60 years later.

Michael said...

Friday question: I've read that some disk jockeys experience hearing loss or tinnitus. Did this happen to you?

Diane D said...

Perhaps things were worse 20 years ago than they were 50 years ago, but I doubt it. There have always been good people of different races who stood in solidarity with African Americans as they fought for equality under the law. As someone who LIVED in the rural south, I saw it all----the terrible bigotry and the noble actions by black and white--some in that room of educated white males would have behaved properly. The movie is true(ish), and wonderful.

MikeN said...


The movie was written not from the book but a shorter proposal but they had access to the author. Some characters are composites or just made up for dramatic effect(surprise). There were teams working on these things, while the movie appears to be more the black women did it all. Overall, the movie is close enough.