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A Closer Look at Silence and Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Silence, by Martin Scorsese, is a good old fashioned art film about selflessness in a Facebook planet. The Jesuit mission to convert Japan to Christianity has failed in 1633, as Buddhist Japan searches out and executes Jesuit priests and their followers. The last priest, Father Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson has sent word back to Portugal that he has apostasized—renounced God and become a Buddhist.

Let’s try the moment that sets up sending two priests whom Ferreira has mentored, Father Rodrigues, played by the ever busy Andrew Garfield and Father Garupe, played by Adam Driver, the other it-guy of the moment, to Japan to minister to Ferreira’s abandoned flock and reclaim his soul.

Scorsese has particular reverence for identifying the rebellious heart drowned in violence in places high and low—starting with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and moving on later through The Age of Innocence, Bringing Out the Dead--I can go on like this forever, but I haven’t always gone where Scorsese has led—The Departed and Gangs of NY most particularly.

Nearly a seminarian in his youth, Scorsese’s inquiries into faith — about the heart that surrenders -- in Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ — now culminate in Silence, based on a 1966 novel by Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo, which does two things in Scorsese’s hands: Silence strips the bark off faith. And it underscores religious subversion of another culture that triggered a terrifying religious persecution. Silence maybe set in feudal Japan nearly 400 years ago, but it is both timeless and completely of the moment.

Scorsese does the kind of questioning--married to master filmmaking--that goes back to Carl Theodor Dryer, Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, the greats of philosophical cinema. I was unpersuaded ultimately by Garfield, who seems a conduit for Anthony Perkins to return to the screen in this and Hacksaw Ridge and is making a year out of characters suffering for beliefs he’s mostly heard about. And by Adam Driver, who like a young Robert Mitchum is made for war or love, but not church.  Silence, however, is perfect stillness… in a noisy world.

Hidden Figures tells the story of African American women mathematicians who played the unsung role of doing the math for NASA in putting the first American, Alan Shepard, into space and later John Glenn into orbit—the retooling and launchpad for the moon landing and American dominance of space seven years later. NASA, then housed at segregated Langley, VA, called them “computers” until the IBM mainframe arrived and forced NASA to recognize the humanity of just who it had treated worse than machines.

The three leads Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae (who with Mahershala Ali also had key roles in the likely Oscar nominee Moonlight) play off each other as three different archetypes caught in a white, segregated world: thoughtful, forbearing and sassy until each has her moment of agency inside the agency.

There’s no great filmmaking going on here—it’s for the 10-plex, so the obligatory prefab tinkling of piano keys or rising horns come up to drag the audience down the narrative line. And the transformation of the book by Margot Lee Shetterly into a script functions the same way.

Here, Henson as Katherine Goebel Johnson, the bonafide math genius of the group, gets called into the office of NASA Task Force director Al Harrison, played inside his groove by Kevin Costner, who wants to know just how she did the math about the Atlas rocket project she wasn’t supposed to know about:

The title Hidden Figures—has a readily accessible double meaning that still doesn’t much add up to a good title. But the key credit here is less the director, Ted Melfi who has one previous outing, the trite St. Vincent with Bill Murray two years ago, than the producer, Donna Gigliotti, whose signature is stories crafted for mass audiences about backstage women getting the shaft before they get the prize. A long time ago in a galaxy far away, back even when she was an assistant on Raging Bull, Donna had the story of Rosie the Riveter on her mind. She went on to be a driving force in making Shakespeare in Love—which won the Oscar in 1998—The Reader and Silver Linings Playbook.

Hidden Figures is holding its own in theaters in a year of African American fare led by Moonlight.

Two stories, Silence and Hidden Figures, about three men and three women, three centuries apart in alien territory. Which is where I’m headed – Utah for Sundance. Please send help.

Before I let you go, there are two more films that bear some comment.

Rogue One is the third chapter in the Star Wars franchise, which from a NASA point of view seems to have sucked up all the oxygen in space and on earth. I caught it at my local mallplex 3D space. The associate theatre manager, Dmitri, explained why he liked it: it introduced a cast of characters he liked without much fanfare in handing off the baton to Han Solo and Princess Leia in Chapter 4, which began the 8-part series in 1977. And he liked the location filmmaking—the Maldives, I believe—where they blew crap up. Otherwise, I thought this film was totally ridiculous.

I also went back to catch The Coen Bros. Hail Caesar, released last February to avoid the mass pileup that was Xmas 2015. Hail Caesar offers up James Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a Capitol Studios fixer guy in the early 1950s trying to keep the looneytunes who make movies from completely imploding into the snakepit of their souls--whether they’re the cast, the Commie writers, the directors with their heads planted you know where.

We follow Mannix zigzagging between the Confession booth, as the film opens for lying to his wife about smoking, and the sets of films within-the-film, where Mannix’s job is to bury sins a whole lot worse than Chesterfields. It starts with Hail Caesar a sword and sandals epic about Christ converting a roman centurion played by George loony Clooney, which requires Mannix to simultaneously neutralize insane religious leaders that the Coens’ script eviscerates for stupidity and locate his star, Clooney, in Centurion drag being held for ransom by Hollywood communists in a million dollar Malibu dacha by the sea. Then there’s a singing cowboy flick, an Esther Williams water ballet picture, and a sailors-on-leave musical, among other films, all recognizable for their 1950s counterparts and all of which can and will assuredly self-destruct without the unsung hero’, Mannix’s invisible guiding truncheon.

The film suffered the same critical and boxoffice splat that Ishtar did in 1987 for Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beatty, who alas did it to himself again this year with the good-hearted, Rules Don’t Apply. Like Ishtar, someday the Coens’ Hail Caesar, an acerbic and insider comedy about filmmaking at the end of the studio era, will likely get a rethink and be hailed at first as a guilty pleasure before graduating to cult status of the unappreciated.

Great cast besides Brolin and Clooney, including Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, the new kid on the block, Alden Ehrenreich, and Channing Tatum, here as a mopey dick in a sailor bar dance number that starts out nominally straight but turns gay in short order.

Like me, heading out to Sundance for 10 days without my dame. And I’m Harlan Jacobson.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.