Sunday, January 22, 2017

Hidden Figures

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox, 2016) - Director: Theodore Melfi. Writers: Theodore Melfi & Alison Schroeder (s/p). Margot Lee Shetterly (book). Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Kurt Krause, Ken Strunk, Lidia Jewett, & Donna Biscoe. Color, Rated PG, 127 minutes.

A superb cast, brilliant directing and scripting make this uplifting film one to catch, as its two hours and seven minutes go by in a flash.

The year is 1961 in Langley Research Center in a still segregated Virginia (the property was originally a plantation). The Russians have launched four versions of Sputnik and America is desperately playing catch-up. NASA is recruiting the finest minds as “human computers” to get a man into orbit before the Russians.

Enter three young black women, Katherine Johnson (Henson) a widow whose husband died of a brain tumor and mother of three daughters, Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) a single mother with two sons, and Mary Jackson (Monáe) wife of Levi Jackson (Hodge) and mother of one son and a daughter. They join a group of about 30 other talented black women working in the west wing at Langley, computing and checking figures that come from the all-white, all-male east wing.

Katherine is a prodigy whose love of numbers and abilities with analytic geometry soon get her transferred to the east wing where she not only has to prove her superiority in deciphering and factoring, but she has to deal with being the only black woman in the building other than the custodial staff. Al Harrison (Costner), the director of the Space Task Group and her boss, soon recognizes her capability and sets her to the task of checking the figures of Paul Stafford (Parsons), his number one mathematician. Despite the excessive redaction Paul makes on his work, Katherine correctly concludes that the Atlas rocket is better to put a man into orbit than the one used to put Alan Shepard into low-Earth orbit. The pressure increases when the Russians launch Yuri Gargarin as the first man in orbit.

Dorothy is a natural leader and finds herself delegating the work assignments in the west wing without the title of supervisor, no matter how she explains it to her boss, Vivian Mitchell (Dunst). She learns about the IBM mainframe being built at Langley and how it can put all of her ladies out of a job. She “borrows” a book on Fortran programming from an all-white library before being asked to leave, learns it and can operate the mainframe before the the IBM Technicians can figure it out. She also teaches the west wing ladies how to operate it.

Mary has the mind and heart of an engineer. She also has the schooling credits to be one, until NASA adds one more class at the last minute. “Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line. Every time.” She sighs. But Mary has the encouragement of her co-worker, Karl Zielinski (Krupa), a Polish/Jewish man who is working on the design of the Mercury capsule with her. She gets her case heard in court and is granted permission to attend night classes at an all-white engineering school.

Though Hidden Figures is about higher mathematics, physics, and engineering, it is never dry. Though it’s about segregation and racism, it’s never oppressive. The dialogue and the sometimes humorous lengths the three women go to get their work done keep the forward motion of the film barreling ahead. For the life of me, I don’t know how Taraji ran back and forth from the east to the west wing in high heels (once in the rain) just to use the segregated restroom while carrying an armload of paperwork. The three portrayals are a delight to watch and their characters are true role models for young girls.

Bring a box of tissues. This film has multiple tender moments, most poignantly, Lt. Colonel Jim Johnson’s (Ali) marriage proposal to Katherine. John Glenn, convincingly portrayed by Glen Powell, relies on Katherine’s figures before he will board Friendship 7. My favorite moments? When Katherine uses Euler’s formula to calculate the reentry of Friendship 7, we hear, “That’s ancient!” from Stafford. To which Katherine replies, “But it works.” And when it takes Katherine 45 minutes to race to the restroom across the compound and back, Harrison takes a crowbar and removes the “Colored Women’s Room” sign saying, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color!”

This is a very special movie, to be seen by everyone. It gets all of its lessons across cleanly and effectively, and gives us a peek not the history we were never taught in school.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Henry’s End
44 Henry St.
Brooklyn Heights, NY

Some think that in order to be good, a restaurant must be expensive, luxurious, in a posh location and impossible to get a reservation. I could go on and on about the devastating faults of many such places. Though Henry’s End doesn’t take reservations for parties under four, I’ve never been turned away. It may look like a bricked-up hole-in-the-wall from the outside with just its bright red neon scripted name in the window, and confusing décor inside (some say it has none), but I’ve never been more comfortable. The only thing close to the first description is that the people of Brooklyn Heights consider their neighborhood to be posh. No matter, for every time I go to Henry’s End I’m greeted warmly, if not by Manager/Chef Mark Lahm, then by one or more of the staff. They remember how I like my martini and duplicate it each time. This is my version of Cheers.

This is why I make it a point to start every New Year with a dinner at Henry’s End. This year, I had two lovely ladies joining me for dinner, one of whom has not experienced the remarkable cuisine and intimacy of the place. We got a table almost halfway down the length of the restaurant, between the makeshift nook that serves as a bar and the wine dispensary.

October starts the Annual Fall/Winter Game Festival at Henry’s End (even though, by popular demand, certain dishes are on the menu year-round) and I was eager to see which ones my dining companions would choose. Let’s start with the appetizers. 

The newly initiated tried the Kangaroo Potstickers, which was more like tender ravioli than dumplings and was served Japanese style with chives and mushrooms and a soy dipping sauce. If you’ve never had kangaroo, this is the place to try it: light in flavor, and the texture more like pork.

My more adventurous companion chose the Game Charcuterie Plate – country game pate, wild boar belly, and rabbit sausage. Even though I was eyeing the pate, I didn’t get a taste before it was gone. I’m guessing it was really good.

I had gnocchi with buffalo short rib ragout over mashed potatoes. It seems redundant to have a pasta made from potatoes and then rest it on more potatoes but this dish worked. The ragout infused the gnocchi with its savory taste and the buffalo meat was juicy and tender. The mashed potatoes were creamy and performed the part of an accent to the dish.

We ordered the Pan Roasted Vegetables — corn on the cob, carrots, Brussels sprouts, onions, baby eggplant and artichoke hearts with fresh herbs, polenta, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar glaze for the table and enjoyed every bite.

In the same order, our neophyte chose the Salmon Moroccan – grilled salmon steak topped with a spiced compound butter and served with mashed potatoes. It was flaky and moist, lightly spiced, and, though I’m not a fan of salmon, I liked it. The lady born under the sign of Aries, just newly introduced to lobster, picked the Penne with Lobster Tomato Cream,  chunks of lobster in a brandy tomato cream sauce. It looked fantastic.

I had the Blackbuck Texas antelope with braised red cabbage in a juniper sauce, over mashed potatoes. I’m very particular about mashed potatoes; if they’re not right, I don’t eat them. But at Henry’s End. Mark flavors them so that they’re irresistible. The antelope is the only game dish on the menu I’ve never seen or tried. It was like a fine steak marinated in that wonderful juniper sauce – very tender and juicy, and easy to cut, nicely seared on the outside and pinkish-red on the inside.

Martinis, though perfect, are not the only drink at Henry’s End. I ordered a glass of Troublemaker varietal (Petit Syrah, Mourvedre, zinfandel and grenache), a deep dark red with rich tannins and tart fruity flavor.

Surprisingly, two of us had room for dessert. The newest person to Henry’s End was sated, but the other chose the Dark and White Chocolate Mousse – half Valhrona white chocolate and half bittersweet. My dessert was the Banana Bread Pudding with vanilla ice cream. All it needed was rum, but I took care of that with my after dinner drink: Kirk and Sweeney 23-year old rum, served in a snifter. It was almost like a fine grappa, but not as strong. The ladies were already planning a return trip to try more of the exotic game dishes and I’ll probably join them. After all, it is my version of Cheers.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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