Written by Daniel Simpson
Every awards season, the phrase “Oscar bait” gets thrown around a lot. It essentially refers to a film which seems tailor made to be nominated for/win awards. These films are almost always dramas, often based on true stories, sometimes period pieces, and generally are inspiring tales of underdogs who succeed. Personally, I find the phrase to be rather limiting and condescending (there are all sorts of films that get the “Oscar bait” label when they don’t deserve it), but all the same I do agree with the sentiment. For as long as I’ve been reviewing films, there are always a handful of movies released during the awards season rush which I skip due to a general whiff of “Oscar baitness” before eventually giving them a go after they get a Best Picture nomination. The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Brooklyn, and Dallas Buyers Club are just some of the recent films to match this description. There are certainly differences in those films, in terms of both content and quality (Brooklyn for example is actually pretty good), but each one struck me as something which seemed rather minor and not really worth a theater trip when faced with more inspired and interesting competition.
I bring all this up because once again, I find myself seeking out two dramas I had initially dismissed after they were recognized by the Academy with a Best Picture nod. Those films are Lion and Hidden Figures. Broadly speaking, both match a lot of the criteria above: inspirational true stories that cinematically looked fairly conventional. On closer examination, however, my reasons for skipping both are a bit different. In the case of Lion, I actually missed most of the marketing and what little I saw didn’t strike me as too compelling. Comparatively, I saw the trailer for Hidden Figures quite a few times and knew it was about a collection of black women who performed crucial duties at NASA which were largely ignored by history. I was very happy to see these women finally given the credit they were due, but the movie itself looked very clichéd and simplistic. Both were films I might have checked out had they come out at a less busy time of year or would have caught up with at home, but Best Picture nominations shot them to the top of my to-see list. Given that I’m approaching both from a similar perspective, I thought it be efficient, and an interesting experiment, to review both films at once.
As mentioned, both of these films are based on true stories. Lion centers around Saroo, who as a young boy (Sunny Pawar) in India was separated from his family by hundreds of miles after being locked in a freight train travelling cross country before eventually arriving in Calcutta. Lost and unable to speak Bengali, Saroo has no way home and is forced to fend for himself. He is eventually adopted by an upper middle-class Australian family and his raised in a loving environment. However, as a young man (Dev Patel), Saroo begins to wonder about the family he lost and attempts to find them. Hidden Figures is set in the early 1960s and looks at three black women who are all friends working at NASA, Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Early on, Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group where her work becomes crucial in the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, which would see astronaut John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth. Meanwhile, Dorothy struggles to be formally recognized as a supervisor before eventually becoming an early expert working with IBM, and Mary Jackson makes the effort to obtain an engineering degree and achieve more within the company.
It’s interesting to compare these two movies in terms of plot as each encounter the opposite problems which tend to plague movies based on a true story: one is trying to make a film about very simple events (Lion), while the other is trying to condense a lot of material into one cohesive narrative (Hidden Figures). Let’s start with Lion. While the trailers tell you that an adult Saroo set out to find his family, what they don’t tell you is said journey is less based on investigation and more based on moping around. Most of the second half of the movie mostly consists of Saroo being miserable and the actual work he does to find his family is so uncinematic it’s stunning. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that he happened to find what he did in real life is an amazing stroke of luck, but that does not mean it’s compelling to watch. In this half, the film struggles to fill out its runtime, resorting to some forced drama between Saroo and his family, as well as an underdeveloped relationship with a young woman (Rooney Mara). This material isn’t exactly bad, but it also isn’t compelling and ultimately doesn’t matter. Comparatively, the first half of the film, which deals with young Saroo’s separation and subsequent experiences in Calcutta, is actually quite good. Much of the story is told without dialogue, there’s a lot of ingenuity in how Saroo gets by, and at times the film is downright suspenseful. But once the film cuts to Saroo as an adult the interest in narrative plummets.
Hidden Figures, on the other hand, has to deal with the fact that the story its adapting is jampacked with content. It should be noted from the get go that the filmmakers have simplified the journeys of the three protagonists so they take place concurrently in 1961-62 when in actual fact much of what is depicted occurred as early as 1949. Even with this condensing however, the narrative still feels fragmented. While Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary all work at NASA, the three are pursuing largely independent goals that don’t crossover. Obviously, there is a broad theme regarding women of colour suffering from discrimination within the hierarchy of NASA, but in terms of narrative they don’t really mesh. Katherine’s story is given considerable screen-time, but Dorothy’s less, and Mary’s lesser still. The film also has to fit in the family lives of all three characters, touch on Cold War tensions, address the civil rights movement, and depict the daily minutiae and subsequent missions undertaken by NASA. Technically, the film does check all these boxes, but it spreads itself so thin that none of it resonates deeply. There’s enough going on that the film is constantly engaging, but it’s all so brief that it’s never enriching.
Both Lion and Hidden Figures are directed by relative newcomers, Garth Davis and Theodore Melfi, respectively. Based on these films, I’d say Davis has way more potential moving forward. For all it’s problems, Lion is a very well-shot film which is constantly pleasing to look at. The first half also features effective visual storytelling and a couple of really gripping sequences. I particularly liked the scene where young Saroo realizes he’s trapped on the train. The shot selection creates a good sense of claustrophobia while the rapid editing and overwhelming sound design give an appropriately chaotic mood. Davis also does a very good job capturing setting. The harsher lighting and editing during the sections in impoverished areas of Calcutta contrast nicely with the cleaner vibe of urban Australia. Finally, Davis also wisely avoids some of the more saccharine places could have gone. While he does maybe lay things on a bit thick at the end, for the most part his hand is pretty even and that was much appreciated. Then there’s Theodore Melfi, who embraces all of the melodramatic clichés that tend to pop up in “inspiring movies based on a true story”. The big speeches, grand gestures, swelling music, and the last-minute complication which must be overcome at the zero hour, it’s all here in abundance. Not only are these moments manipulative and simplistic, but their frequent occurrence makes them lose any impact. Put simply, when multiple scenes are meant to be the “inspiring scene”, none of them are. To the credit of both men, each are capable when it comes to working with actors. Indeed, the performances in each film are generally pretty good, though maybe not as good as one would expect based on all the awards each have received. Actually, I thought the most impressive performance in either film was Taraji P. Henson’s performance in Hidden Figures, who has generally been overlooked by the various awards bodies. She finds a lot of power in this quiet but accomplished woman who gains confidence with each accomplishment.
So all told, how do Lion and Hidden Figures stack up? Honestly, I think they’re both mediocre movies, just in different ways. Lion has a really good first half and a really boring second half, so it averages out to just being okay. Hidden Figures is consistently watchable but entirely predictable and never does anything to stand out. I suspect Hidden Figures might play better to an audience as an inspiring tale, but I think I’d give the edge to Lion based on Garth Davis’ above average direction. Really though, I see both films as missed opportunities. If Lion had focused almost entirely on a young Saroo trying to navigate a dangerous environment he barely understood while relegating the rediscovery to the epilogue the result would have been a far more compelling and unique movie. With Hidden Figures, I wish the content had instead been made into a documentary which could have explored these ladies’ stories with greater accuracy and depth while avoiding the saccharine storytelling that tend to plague narrative adaptations of this kind. That film may not have played to as wide an audience, but I think it could have been a lot more insightful and inspiring in a less forceful way. As is, we have two films which are both passable, but unexceptional.
Hidden Figures: C