Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Hidden Figures" and "The Founder": review

I watched two movies back to back last night: "Hidden Figures" and "The Founder." Both films are fictionalized versions of true stories; both films deal with cultural upheaval not by providing a sweepingly epic view of the upheaval itself, but by focusing on certain people "on the inside," so to speak.

Directed by Theodore Melfi and set in the early 1960s, 2016's "Hidden Figures" is the story of African-American women in the US space program. Specifically, it focuses on Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle MonĂ¡e), three friends and math whizzes who quietly work for NASA, making and checking spaceflight-related calculations. The story mostly focuses on Katherine, a math prodigy from childhood who works in the Space Task Group led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). All three women have to deal with the fact that, on the eve of the Civil Rights movement, they still must face sexism and racial prejudice, some of it subtle, but much of it overt and nasty. Katherine works as a "computer," i.e., a person whose job is to compute the figures necessary for safe spaceflight.

"Hidden Figures" hits all the right notes and isn't as preachy as I'd feared it might be. Racism and sexism are shown coming from all angles, including from within the black community local to the NASA facility. The women portrayed in the film—all of whom really exist and all of whom really went through some form of the travails depicted on screen—quickly earn the viewer's respect and admiration, not only for their smarts and talents, but also for their determination to live according to their dreams. "Hidden Figures" follows a predictable arc, one that's given away in the preview trailer, but even if we know the destination from the outset, the journey is worth it. Solid performances by all the principals anchor a good and well-paced story. Some scenes will call to mind other spaceflight-related movies like "The Right Stuff" and "Apollo Thirteen," but the scenes of church and family make this movie unique in the space-program genre.

2016's "The Founder," by contrast, is a cheerfully dark film full of irony from the title on down. This movie, directed by John Lee Hancock, focuses on Ray Kroc, the purported "founder" of the now-ubiquitous McDonald's fast-food empire that revolutionized the way the world eats. On one level, we could call this a story of winning the American dream, but that would be a fairly superficial reading.

In 1954, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a down-on-his-luck salesman trying to peddle milkshake dispensers from eatery to eatery. After a string of rejections, he gets a call from his secretary, who tells him that a small restaurant out in California needs to order six—no, make that eight—of his dispensers. Kroc thinks this must be a mistake, but apparently, shakes are flying out the window of this little establishment, so Kroc fulfills the order and drives to California to see this restaurant for himself. Thus does Kroc make the acquaintance of the McDonald brothers, Dick and Maurice (Nick Offerman and John Carroll, respectively), two friendly guys with a dream to make a successful restaurant. The brothers give Kroc the grand tour of their grounds, showing him how it's possible to render fast, accurate service in only a few seconds as opposed to what 50s-era drive-ins normally do: take forever to serve you your order while flubbing it in the process. Kroc sees this operation and has a massive brainstorm; he proposes that the restaurant go franchise and begin to expand nationally. The brothers are hesitant at first, but they eventually agree to a contract with Kroc. The rest of the movie is, as you might expect, about how Kroc comes to take over the McDonald's brand, including ownership of that coveted surname.

Kroc comes off as a parasite: the McDonald's concept is not his own, but he often acts as if it were. The movie's moral complexity comes from its exploration of the contrast between the earnest but fairly unambitious McDonald brothers and the big-thinking Ray Kroc. We viewers are constantly confronted with the question, At what price success? Living up to his reptilian surname, Kroc devours whatever he encounters: while he may have seemed like an unsuccessful salesman at the beginning of the movie, he had actually made a good living for himself and his wife (Laura Dern, looking sad), so he is experienced enough in the food industry to know a good thing when he sees it. He even ends up stealing Joan (Linda Cardellini), the ambitious wife of a low-key investor (Patrick Wilson) who owns a high-end restaurant. Kroc and the McDonalds clash on almost everything because Kroc is willing to make certain compromises to the original McDonald vision, e.g., using powdered milkshakes instead of real-milk milkshakes in order to save on refrigeration costs. The conflict reaches the point where Kroc does an end-run around the McDonalds, who come off looking like innocent lambs while the film focuses on the savvy, predatory bad guy.

Is Ray Kroc indeed a bad guy? The film does its damnedest to make us think so. But is he evil on the order of, say Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko of "Wall Street"? I'd say no. Ray is portrayed as an untrustworthy deal-breaker and a ruthless expansionist, but he's also clever enough to solve some of the problems that the McDonald brothers had themselves encountered. The brothers had, for example, attempted to go franchise before Ray Kroc came along; their efforts failed because there was no standardization and no quality control. Kroc had the vision to solve this problem by finding middle-class folks with good work ethics—instead of the usual upper-class, country-club snobs—to manage the local franchises. Kroc was as interested in maintaining quality as the McDonalds were, but his notion of "quality" wasn't completely in sync with the brothers'. At the same time, the movie tells us, Kroc was neglectful of his marriage and often more concerned about the bottom line than about people in general.  So:  is Kroc a bad guy?  The movie presents a complicated picture.

In the end, both "Hidden Figures" and "The Founder" share the central themes of determination and persistence, but they explore those themes in very different ways. "Hidden Figures" is very earnest in tone; "The Founder" is very cynical. Both movies are about the pursuit of a big dream, but whereas one dream is a dream of liberty and self-fulfillment, the other dream is a dream of power and acquisition. Both movies are well made and worth your while. Watch them with my blessing.


Bratfink said...

I thought Hidden Figures was great, too.

King Baeksu said...

Why Not A Movie About Jack Crenshaw?—The White Man Who Actually Did What HIDDEN FIGURES Credits To Black Women

Did Katherine have to run across the NASA Langley campus to use the bathroom?

As for Katherine Johnson herself, Shetterly writes that when Katherine started working there, she didn't even realize that the bathrooms at Langley were segregated. This is because the bathrooms for white employees were unmarked and there weren't many colored bathrooms to be seen. It took a couple years before she was confronted with her mistake, but she simply ignored the comment and continued to use the white restrooms. No one brought it up again and she refused to enter the colored bathrooms.


Kevin Kim said...

I encourage people to read both links all the way through. Here they are in clickable form:

Why Not a Movie About Jack Crenshaw? Hidden Figures

Interesting mix of fact and fiction.