Tag Archives: Kevin Costner

Hidden Figures – Movie Review

I thought I knew everything about the space program and the first Americans to land on the moon, but low and behold something new. Hidden Figures is the story of three brilliant African-American women: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Taking place at the beginning of the 60’s Civil Rights Movement, these women played a vital role in the space race against Russia.

Release Date: January 6, 2017
Writer: Theodore Melphi
Director: Theodore Melphi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Jim Parsons, Kevin Costner

In the early 60’s, computers were a new thing. So new that even NASA did not have a computer. The high-level calculations required to successfully launch a man strapped to the front of a rocket, get him into orbit and find the right trajectory to bring him home safely was left to a small pool of mathematicians. This mathematician was Katherine Johnson played beautifully by Taraji P. Henson. Johnson’s job was to double-check the work of the NASA engineers.

Johnson faced several challenges. As important as her work was, Johnson lived in the segregated United States. She couldn’t drink coffee from the same pot of co-workers and the only colored bathroom was on the opposite end of campus. Her work was also hampered by the top-secret material she was asked to work on and a great deal of information she needed was redacted with a large black marker. Also, her department was far behind in its work and the Russians were outpacing the U.S. to space. Outside the box thinking was needed to create the math required for safe space flight.

The only bright spot is the project team leader, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), whose job was to find the math by any means. The goal was the prize and it didn’t matter who or what came up with the solution as long as the solution could be found.

While the film focused primarily on Katherine Johnson, there was also Dorothy Vaughn who worked in the pool of American-American office temps. While she worked there, she was really the one in charge and served as the administrator of that pool. The problem was she was asked to do the work of a manager, but without the title of manager nor the salary of one. Her requests for promotion turned to the dear ears of her supervisor, Vivian Mitchel (Kirsten Dunst).

Finally, there is Mary Jackson, who is assigned to engineering specifically by it’s team leader, Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) because he saw in Mary Jackson the tools necessary to become a NASA engineer. Jackson’s problem was that she did not have the education needed for the job and the education she needed could only be obtained from a whites-only school.

Hidden Figures hits a lot of notes. First, it’s an inspiration film about an inspiration story. The 60’s was a time when you could not sit around and wait for someone to rescue you from adversity. You had to rescue yourself. For Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson, they fought for their place in history. They fought hard and succeeded (Spoiler Alert!)

Hidden Figures is also a civil rights and women’s rights film. History shows that the most unreachable goals, like landing on the moon, cannot happen if you leave it to just the white men. You have to expand your circle of knowledge and creative thinking, especially when your answer does not lie with someone of your same gender or ethnicity.

Finally, Hidden Figures is a math movie. Nerds and geeks rejoice, math was just as cool in the 60’s as it is today (Not sure this is the most convincing statement).

Hidden Figures manages to overcome the problems that many biographical film face. The story moves smoothly and does not feel like a series of one happy event to the other. The moments of character revelation feel real and the moments of heroism from Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson don’t feel heavy handed. Although my favorite line from the movie comes from Costner’s Harrison character, “At NASA, we pee the same color.”

Fine acting. Films like Hidden Figures succeed with you have great actors in great roles. These fine actors help build the credibility of the people they portray. The lead actresses, especially Henson, manage to bring dimension to their roles and create three distinct characters. Each actress fights through her individual problems uniquely.

Hidden Figures is an amazing story about the mission to the moon. A story that until now would have gone unnoticed. It’s also a film of inspiration. The lesson to keep fighting to be who you were meant to be.

McFarland USA – Movie Review

Every year, Walt Disney Studios presents a sport-related movie loaded with hope and inspiration. This year’s sports entry is McFarland U.S.A. and the sport is cross-country. The criteria of a Disney sports-related movies is it has to be loosely based on a true story. It must feature an underdog or a team of underdogs, who overcome personal obstacles to come out on top. We are then treated to a series of sports-related montages leading to a moment of unbearable schmaltz, which ends with victory or something real close to victory.

McFarland U.S.A. fits the mold of Disney sports movie. The film follows the last leg of football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), who accepts a job at the last school in California willing to hire him. McFarland High School, located in the middle of Central California, is as stated in the film, the poorest city in the state. White moves into the city with this wife, Cheryl (Mario Bello) and two young daughters, Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher). Already he fears for their safety. It is clear that the White family are the fish out of water in the predominately Mexican-American community.

McFarland03Just as soon as White’s football career starts in McFarland, it quickly ends with White’s demotion to a life science and physical education teacher. The majority of his students are children of farm pickers. The pay of the parents is so low that most children are needed to work as pickers themselves in the mornings before school and on weekends. White soon discovers that this hard work and a carbo diet of rice and beans, not only makes the student good endurance runners, but instills a work ethic that makes them perfect for cross country.

The events of the movie take place in 1987, and the state of California has just made cross-country and state supported sport. The newly sanctioned program means that the California will subsidize cross-country expenses including coaches.

Now the story takes off. White has to recruit a team, get the team to trust him and turn them into winners. Recruiting means that White has to visit the families and understand their culture. Not just the Mexican culture, but the culture of the poor in Central California. This fulfills the cultural lesson we expect from Disney movies.

White’s team may come from the same town, but they have different stories. Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) is McFarland’s best runner. His father is always looking for work and rarely home. He does not believe anyone will leave McFarland. The Diaz brothers, Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), David (Rafael Martinez) and Damacio (Michael Aguero) must quit the team in order to work on the farm and support their family. White tries in vain to win the parents over.

The movie pulls out all the stops to tug at your heart strings. Coach White’s goal is to get his family out of McFarland as soon as he can. In order to build a strong team, White has to understand the culture of McFarland. The White Family has to accept their surroundings and the people around them. The students have to work hard to realize their dreams including being the first of their family to receive a college education.

These themes are not that different from other sports-related movies and especially from Disney movies, in general. What makes McFarland worth watching is the acting and writing. Kevin Costner is at his best as the everyday guy with a little bit of authority. He is as believable as he gets in playing a normal person with dreams and struggles. At no point does his performance feel forced nor the emotional moments feel false. The story also manages to make real the schmaltzy moments like forgetting his daughter’s birthday and whether to take the job in the big city.

There are not a lot of surprises in McFarland USA. The ending where-are-they-now is inspiring and real at the same time. The real question is can Disney produce a sports movie next year that pushes the boundaries of storytelling and drama.