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'Hidden's' joy could play well

Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) in gray, flanked by fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), left, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), meets the man they helped send into orbit, John Glenn (Glen Powell) in the upcoming movie 'Hidden Figures.'

HOPPER STONE/ SMPSP; TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

By LIBBY HILL | Los Angeles Times | Published: January 24, 2017

Nominations for the 89th Academy Awards will be announced early Tuesday, and while there's no such thing as a sure thing, Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is probably going to have a very good day.

But there's always room for a few surprises, and the box-office hit "Hidden Figures" is the film to watch, despite its late wide-release date.

The biographical story of three African American women working as mathematicians for NASA during the 1960s has proven appeal, ousting "Rogue One" from the top spot during its first week of wide release.

Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae and featuring the music stylings of Pharrell Williams, the movie is a throwback to a different era of American filmmaking, not unlike "La La Land." But if Chazelle's musical is yearning for the halcyon days of the large-scale movie musical, then "Hidden Figures," directed by Theodore Melfi, is a paean to the 1990s and its penchant for inspirational true stories.

These spins on familiar concepts offer something vital that other Oscar contenders are missing: joy.

With political tensions subsuming the country's collective mood, "Hidden Figures" and "La La Land" appeal to viewers because they're human stories brought to life in bright colors with catchy music and plots that don't put you through the ringer.

Though beautiful and moving films, "Moonlight," "Manchester by the Sea," "Fences" and "Silence" are all rife with heartbreaking emotion, potentially leaving Oscar voters yearning for relief and uplift.

With its tale of a fractured America banding together to make real change, both socially and scientifically, "Hidden Figures" offers a window into a time where America was actively working toward being great. American victories, whether triumphs over Russia in the space race or the social progress of integrated restrooms, are victories that can be celebrated by everyone.

The joy of "Hidden Figures" is knowing that in the end, America will end up on top, no matter what.

Talk about a flip side to our current situation: There's no longer a space exploration program in the United States, and our dealings with Russia are steeped in accusations of election fraud, all while racial tensions simmer.

"Hidden Figures" is a balm for all that, a potent reminder that optimism goes a long way. On Tuesday, we'll find out if the academy agrees.

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(c) 2017 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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