Hidden Figures (2016)

Once upon a time, the word ‘computer’ actually meant a person – someone who does computations. Before we had the electronic versions, even the ones that took up vast rooms of space never mind the power in your phone, calculations all had to be done by hand. And that includes the complex mathematics required to put a man in space – equations for speed and orbit and so many other life-threatening details, all requiring a human brain, pencil and paper.

In the early 1960s, a battle was going on between the USA and Russia to win the ‘space race’: being first was everything in launching satellites, putting a man into space, orbiting the Earth, reaching the moon. And while NASA struggled with such lofty goals, the people working for them were often facing much more fundamental struggles: to be fairly treated if they weren’t white men.

Hidden Figures is based on the true stories of three black women who not only worked for NASA, but were fundamental in the successes that included the famous “One small step” for Neil Armstrong in 1969. History tells of rooms of white males, and finally this movie is trying – albeit imperfectly at times – to point out that that is far from the whole story.

I absolutely *loved* this movie. It was heart-wrenching watching the snubs and struggles, and I felt so pleased to live in a world where my reality is to see that with a large dollop of ‘WTF?’ – shame we’ve still got a ways to go! The film has you rooting 100% for the three female leads – and quite frankly I’m shocked that there were no Oscars taken home – while keeping the story focused on the space race. Such is the power of the story-telling that, even more than half a century on and knowing how things turned out, I was still on the edge of my seat as the flimsiest of tech hurtled brave souls into space.

If I have any complaints about the film, it’s only that I think it still sugar-coated some of the struggles. I have read that the whole removing of bathroom signs was quite wrongly handed to a white character, for instance. It was fascinating – and a bit sickening – to see what life was like under segregation and when women were so openly second class citizens – but for every gain seen, I did find myself wondering if, for instance, the husbands were really so supportive of their ‘little women’, or if that had been brushed over for the sake of keeping the movie up-tempo and uplifting.

Still, absolutely recommended – best film I’ve seen in a long time!

Released: 17th February 2017
Viewed: 28th March 2017
Running time: 127 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 9/10

War Dogs (2016)

Every once in a while I go see a movie I know very little about, and probably wouldn’t have bothered with if not for (a) someone else making the choice, and (b) a cinema pass (i.e. ‘free’ movies!). So it was with War Dogs – sure, I’d seen the trailer, and actually, I’d thought “hell no”. But pickings were slim, and so it was.

Following a scandal around defence contracts being awarded (ahem) less than fairly, a public procurement scheme is set up by the American government. Thus, 20-somethings like Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) can bid for the ‘crumbs’ – and these crumbs can be worth millions.

The plot picks up with Efraim recruiting old school friend David (Miles Teller), a laid back stoner and war protester who manages to eschew morals for cold hard cash when life suddenly gets complicated. As the business gains momentum, the pair go from searching the internet list and making phone calls to finding themselves far deeper into danger. Is it that taste of adrenaline that sends them making riskier and riskier decisions?

Having known very little about this moving going in, it came as a surprise to me to read afterwards that it was at least partly billed as a comedy – from the director of The Hangover no less (which explains the Bradley Cooper ‘cameo’ role). Well, just no: this is a drama with a vein of blackest humour, but it is not a comedy in any respects. Perhaps that explains why the tone felt a little weird at times, though.

The emphasis is far more on David and his family life as he gets sucked deeper into everything, plus the relationship between the two leads. The moments of high action – like the trip through the Iraqi ‘triangle of death’ – are odd islands in a movie otherwise far more domestic, but then I guess that was the point: war happens elsewhere, it’s slightly unreal while you’re sitting behind a computer.

Overall I’d describe War Dogs as an entertaining, solid enough look at the Iraq/Afghan wars from a slightly different angle than most movies. There’s no glorification here – from the opening we are told that this is war as business and financial profiteering. The “I didn’t mean to be an immoral arms dealer” angle is a little trite, perhaps, and the story more than a little one sided, but at the same time scarily plausible for this ‘based on a true story’ tale.

Released: 26th August 2016
Viewed: 26th August 2016
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6/10