ByElise Jost, writer at
"It's a UNIX system! I know this!" Twitter @elisejost
Elise Jost

The recent release of led to a surprise, but well-deserved box office hit. Overtaking Rogue One during Martin Luther King weekend, this true story of three black women helping turn the tides in favor of the United States in the space race of the '60s is one that needed to be told.

Carried by three excellent performances thanks to Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, it's the kind of movie that kicks ass because it depicts such a crucial turning point in history — and knowing that that's how things happened makes you want to clap your hands at the screen.

Can You Keep The Tension Alive When A Movie Is Based On A True Story?

Yet there's one obstacle that Hidden Figures doesn't manage to overcome, and it's a plight faced by all movies "based on a true story." It's a simple but tricky question: If your audience knows the ending, how do you maintain tension and surprise? You could argue that there'll never really be an element of surprise if we do know in advance how things are going to turn out, but cinema has proven from time to time that it can keep us on the edge of our seat, even when the outcome is clear.

Take Schindler's List, by far one of the best examples of historical movies. Though we're aware that Schindler saved hundreds of Jews from their gruesome fate, there's no way we can sit back and relax. The movie never really lets you be certain that Oskar's plan is going to work out, making you fear for his life and the ones of everyone else involved.

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But there's barely a moment watching Hidden Figures where you're worried that the story might not go according to plan. That's because instead of wondering if or how the expected events are going to take place, we're simply left wondering when they're going to happen. The absurd racism faced by the characters is enraging, but instead of fearing for their success, we just grow more and more impatient to finally be able to applaud them.

The Linear Subplots In 'Hidden Figures' Contribute To Killing Any Element Of Surprise

'Hidden Figures' [Credit: 20th Century Fox]
'Hidden Figures' [Credit: 20th Century Fox]

That's partly because of the few scenes taking place outside of the NASA campus, where we catch glimpses of the characters' lives at home, far away from the hurdles they run into at work. Though they're probably meant to add depth to these ladies and make them easier to identify with, these shots of everyday life are also following such a linear path that they only add to the feeling that every path in the movie is going to go exactly where it was meant to go.

Take Katherine, a widow, who meets a handsome general one Sunday after church. From time to time, the movie takes us back to their progressive flirting, and each step is more devoid of surprise than the previous one. First they dance, then he comes over, and one magical day they finally realize they wanted to be together all along.

Same goes for Mary, whom you think at first is going to be stopped by her husband from trying to enter the local school system, despite their strict segregation rules. Yet their conflict never really takes place. Instead, he becomes a supportive husband overnight, and Mary can go on and convince the judge to let her take her classes.

The History Behind 'Hidden Figures' Is Clearly Awesome — But Is That Enough?

'Hidden Figures' [Credit: 20th Century Fox]
'Hidden Figures' [Credit: 20th Century Fox]

It's not a bad thing in itself to see them succeed. The whole point of Hidden Figures is that these women did win their battle, so it's amazing to watch them do it — it's just a shame that the movie seems to shy away from taking any risks in the way it tells its story.

I wouldn't discourage you from watching it, because again, it's the kind of story that needs to be told. Plus, the energy of the main actresses alone is worth the watch. But it poses an important question: Can a movie allow itself to be lazy because the history behind it is memorable enough? Personally, I believe the form counts as much as the content — and with Hidden Figures, I left the theater knowing I'd remember the story better than the movie.

Do you care if movies based on a true story take creative risks, or do you watch them mainly to find out what happened?


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