Hidden Figures and Seeing Infinity

A cracking review on Slate's Culture Gabfest and a theme of female and racial empowerment was enough for my wife and I to chose Hidden Figures; our first trip to the cinema since our eldest was born three and a half years ago. It was an excellent choice, this is a startlingly good movie, beautifully played by all the leads with a terrific script and couple of moments that would move any right-thinking person to tears.

If there was ever a time and a place when a meritocracy needed no boundaries, it was NASA in the 1960s as the Americans battled to catch up with a Russian lead in the space race. This tale of the slow and difficult rise through NASA’s hierarchy of Dorothy, and her fellow African-American mathematicians and engineers, was testimony to just how deep the racism went, and testimony to how far we have now come.

All of which makes me want to punch Donald Trump and his cronies for the threat he poses to that progress. This is a timely film, so it’s perhaps no surprise – given the propensity of movies to arrive in pairs like Tornado films, Meteorite films... that there’s another celluloid tale of racial empowerment out there. Hidden Figures was so good, that I was downloading The Man Who Knew Infinity andracking it up for Saturday night at the movies almost as soon as I heard about it.

This is a the tale of an Indian mathematician with remarkable intuitive insight to some of the most intractable problems of his day. Set in the early part of the 19th century, there really no shortage of racism or resistance to his arrival at Trinity College and application for a Fellowship there.

Unfortunately, it suffered in comparison to Hidden Figures. Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons do a good job with the material, but the lack of an urgent challenge – like the Russian’s putting an astronaut into space – left the film feeling soggy.

There was plenty of drama in Srinivasa Ramanujan’s life, but the way the film was structured left me wondering just what was at stake in his ideas. The pacing also front-loaded the sadness and tragedy, delivering little respite until the very end. And the motives of several characters – particularly the evil mother – were left unexplained. It’s a great story, but so much more could have been done with it.