Seriously, about the only thing I can complain with regard to this movie is that given the time-period in which it is set, everyone should've been smoking like chimneys. Costner's Al Harrison chain-chews gum like you'd expect from a man trying to quit the habit - so he gets a pass - but beyond that nobody lights up, nobody is even seen with a cigarette. I've looked at several dozen historical images of the mission control room and nobody seems to have cigarettes in there so OK I can roll with that but outside of NASA, on the streets, in the churches and back-yard BBQs you'd expect that people smoked.
It might help you contextualize my reaction to this movie to know that when I was growing up one of my prized possessions was a then-biggest 64-color box of Crayola crayons and on that box I had affixed a Freedom 7 sticker. To say that I was a typical American kid obsessed with rockets and space and moon landings growing up is to understate it. So a movie that tells a true-er story of the fiction I absorbed is going to be right up my alley. I expected to love this movie, and I did.
And then there's the cast. I generally like Costner, and he turns in a very good show as a man balancing his personal obsession with the fact that he's leading a mission of obsessed men on an obsessive journey for an obsessed nation. I liked that he was so much a typical engineer - like the fish in water he's unaware of the racist system that supports him until the moment that racism becomes an obstacle to him getting things done at which point FUCK racism. If getting his work done means taking a black woman into a classified Pentagon briefing full of white men then so be it. Costner's Harrison isn't some newly enlightened white ally - he's a man on a mission and he's smart enough to realize that this black woman is essential to getting that mission done.
I'm not familiar with Taraji Henson's previous work, which appears to be mostly TV, but it's clear she should get more leading roles. She manages by turns to be a super-smart girl-woman, a wise and caring mother, a feminist romantic, a hard-working super-smart black woman who gets the short end of everything because she's that, and in the end she turns out to be the right smart person in the right place at the right time. Yes, there's credit due here to the writer and the director for setting this up, but it's Henson's style and talent that carry the role across all these varied situations.
Then there's Octavia Spencer, who does not exactly have the gut-punch level of emotional impact that, say, Alfre Woodard can deliver but she is not far off. She's mostly relegated to a supervisor/momma role in her interactions with the other characters which makes you forget just how smart she is until she turns the tables about 2/3 of the way through. Her interactions with Kirsten Dunst's character, the almost thoughtlessly racist Vivian Mitchell, are some of the best two-shot scenes in the movie. I remember Spencer from Snowpiercer, a movie I disliked enough to discount her work and I'm glad to see her getting a bigger role in a better movie here.
Then last you have Janelle Monae, whose singing and dancing (and awesome sense of style) I've enjoyed for some years showing up as a fine actor in her own right. Her character, Mary Jackson, is portrayed as the sexiest and also the boldest of the three main women. Her role is interesting to me because she has some of the strongest interactions with men. She is fine in the scenes with Spencer and Henson, but where she really shines and defines herself is first in her interactions with the Jewish WWII survivor who wants her to do more. Then in her careful yet strong and loving interactions with her husband, played by Aldis Hodge, as a black-rights near-militant activist, and finally in one utterly brilliant scene with Frank Hoyt Taylor (credited simply as "Judge"). If you can watch those scenes and not fall in love with Mary Jackson then you are not me.
In the end, I think what makes this movie great is that it makes a sweeping story - America's race to come back from our failure to put the first satellite and then the first man into orbit - into a series of tightly paired interactions that each tell facets of the story. Henson-Costner tell us the NASA parts of the story. Spencer-Dunst tell us the black woman-white woman inbred racism parts of the story. Monae and her foils tell us the black-women-fighting-uphill-all-the-way parts of the story. Things in movies are always made simpler and history is too complex to be told truly in a two-hour film. But within those constraints this movie does a brilliant job of revealing things we all deserve to know and helping us feel it through those who lived it.
Cross-posted from Dreamwidth, at http://drwex.dreamwidth.org/943927.html. You can comment here or there.