Two fiction films based on 1960s history open at the MV Film Center this weekend. “Hidden Figures” is a special “Science on Screen” event about three remarkable African American women who helped NASA launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit. “Jackie” narrates the aftereffects of JFK’s assassination in 1963 from the perspective of the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy. The documentary “A Plastic Ocean” will play Thursday, Jan. 19 (not Jan. 12, as incorrectly listed in last week’s review).
“Hidden Figures” begins with Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) accosted by a white policeman after their Chevy Impala breaks down en route to work. They quietly assert themselves with their NASA credentials, and, impressed, the cop escorts them to the space agency’s campus. The rest of the tale illustrates the kind of racism and sexism the three faced despite their brilliant contributions to the space program.
The year is 1961, and Katherine, a mathematics prodigy, is promoted to the analytical team that will provide coordinates for John Glenn’s 1962 launch into space. Her boss is no-nonsense Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) whose next-in-command Paul Stafford (Jim Person) has little respect for Katherine. Neither do the other men on the team. She must race a half-mile to reach a colored person’s bathroom and can’t use the coffeepot designated for white male staff only.
Her colleague and friend Dorothy oversees the all-Black computers, as these women were called. Her white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) ignores her request for a promotion appropriate to her duties. Mary, the third, wants to take courses at the all-white Hampton institution that will allow her to earn engineer status. All three are required to wear below-the-knee skirts, high heels, and no jewelry except pearls — as if they could afford them.
Director Theodore Melfi uses archival footage to reinforce the excitement of the space-race era. Relying on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, Melfi and co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder develop the distinctive personalities of the three and enrich the film with details from their backgrounds. In widowed Katherine’s case, a romance develops with Col.l Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) despite his initial discrediting of her talents. Each woman fights the era’s racism and sexism in her own way. The good news is that these three extraordinary women help eliminate aspects of the era’s prejudices.
Natalie Portman has garnered multiple nominations and awards for her powerful portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie.” This film recounts the iconic first lady’s struggle in coping with the death of her husband and fixing his place in history. It is framed by an interview she grants an unnamed journalist, played by Billy Crudup and based on Theodore White, just days after the president’s assassination. She opens up to her interviewer, but at the same time makes clear who’s in charge, saying, “Don’t think for one minute I’m going to let you publish that,” after describing how she felt when Oswald’s bullets hit the president.
Director Pablo Larrain captures the clothes and décor that Jackie brought to prominence while she lived in the White House. Re-creations of key moments — some public, some private — include her televised tour of the White House, her explanation of President Kennedy’s death to their two children, and the time she spent at the Kennedy’s Hyannis Port compound immediately after the assassination.
Natalie Portman portrays Jackie as both a vulnerable, aggrieved widow and an assertive player in the complex, politically driven events following the assassination. She mimics Jackie’s aristocratic diction as well as her shyness and assertiveness.
Viewers who lived through this history-making event — remembering where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy’s assassination occurred — may find it hard to believe in Portman’s depiction of a woman whose image is burned so firmly into their memory. That does not diminish the actress’s achievement in interpreting that extraordinary and tragic figure.
For tickets and more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.