Hidden Figures (2016) 20th Century Fox/Drama RT: 127 minutes Rated PG (thematic elements, some language) Director: Theodore Melfi Screenplay: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi Music: Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch Cinematography: Mandy Walker Release date: December 25, 2016 (US, limited)/January 6, 2017 (US, expansion) Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Kurt Krause.
I wonder if John Glenn, who died on December 8, got to see Hidden Figures before he passed. He may be a supporting character in the film but his role in American history- i.e. the first American to orbit the Earth- is anything but. He had some help getting there though. Somebody had to do the math, the complex calculations that would enable him to successfully complete his mission. Until now, Hollywood hasn’t recognized the behind-the-scenes mathematicians, engineers and computer programmers that helped launch a man into space. Hidden Figures more than makes up for it by putting them in the vanguard of the Space Race of the 60s. What makes their story even more incredible is that many of them were African-American women.
Hidden Figures focuses on three of the real life women who worked at NASA and proved themselves invaluable in the Space Race. Katherine Johnson (Henson, Empire) is a mathematics genius with a beautiful mind for numbers. While working in the colored computing pool under Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer, The Help), she’s reassigned to the Flight Research Division to check the work of the mathematicians (all white men, of course). This doesn’t go over to well with her new colleagues, especially Paul Stafford (Parsons, The Big Bang Theory), a petulant sort who resents being second-guessed. Johnson does make a good impression of her gruff-but-decent boss Al Harrison (Costner, Bull Durham) whose sole interest is getting our people into space.
Although she’s been acting as supervisor for some time, Vaughan doesn’t officially hold the title which would mean an increase in pay. Her boss, Vivian Mitchell (Dunst, Melancholia), keeps putting her off. She finally takes matters into her own hands, teaching herself the complex FORTRAN language so she can operate the brand new IBM computer that none of her white colleagues can seem to figure out. Then there’s Mary Jackson (Monae, Moonlight), a “computer” (that’s what they call the female mathematicians) who wants to be an engineer. Due to the segregation laws, she can’t take the necessary extension courses required to obtain a degree. She ultimately takes her fight to court.
Given that Hidden Figures is set in Virginia in the early 60s, it stands to reason that the racial issues of the time play into the story. In 1961, segregation was an everyday reality. At NASA, there were separate bathrooms and cafeterias for whites and coloreds. Because of this, Johnson has to go all the way back to her old building to use the bathroom at work, a half-mile each way. It’s unfair, no question about it, but director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) doesn’t try to provoke an angry reaction from audiences. Unlike last fall’s The Birth of a Nation, it’s NOT an incendiary film. By way of illustrating the difference between the two movies, let me describe audience reaction. When the end credits started rolling at Birth, two people shouted “Black lives matter!” At the end of Hidden Figures, they applauded. Everybody was all-smiles. And why not? It’s a feel-good movie of the highest order. Does it soft-pedal the racial issues? Not exactly. One character, Mary’s husband (Hodge, Straight Outta Compton), is an outspoken political sort. He’s seen watching a news report about the deadly bombing of a Freedom Bus. We also see an anti-segregation protest taking place as Dorothy walks past with her two children. It’s clear that certain NASA employees are prejudiced. However, it never gets too ugly. An early encounter between the three ladies and a highway patrolman turns out okay. He even gives them an escort to work.
The acting in Hidden Figures is fantastic. Henson, playing a character very far removed from Cookie Lyon, is amazing as a widowed math genius trying to raise three daughters on her own while playing an integral part in history. She may be quiet but it doesn’t mean she won’t speak up for herself. She delivers a powerful speech when asked about her prolonged absences from her desk. She’s also quite clear about wanting to attend meetings generally closed to civilians so she can stay up to speed as far as her calculations are concerned. Spencer is also very good as Vaughan. She has one of the movie’s best scenes. After being made to leave the local library for trying to check out a book in the white section, she takes the desired book from her handbag, telling her children that its hers since her tax dollars help pay for the library. That’s just awesome! Singer Monae, in only her second acting gig, has the makings of a big star. Her character gets off some great lines. When Katherine asks her about ogling white men, she replies, “It’s equal rights. I have the right to see fine in every color.”
The supporting players are also very good. Costner has aged nicely to the point where he should consider playing mentor-types for the rest of his career. Parsons does fine in a dramatic role although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see Sheldon Cooper in every movement, gesture and facial expression. Ali (Moonlight) is great as Jim, Katherine’s romantic interest. Olek Krupa (Salt) has some nice scenes as a sympathetic engineer, a Polish Jew who understands Mary’s dilemma. Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!) nails it as Glenn, a nice guy who won’t fly into space until Katherine makes sure the numbers add up correctly. Hidden Figures is both a compelling drama and a fascinating history lesson. It manages to make math interesting. It celebrates math geeks! It even has a few laughs scattered throughout. It shines a light on the unspoken heroines of the Space Race. It’s a story whose telling is long overdue. It’s a true triumph and will leave viewers with a smile. This is one you should take the kids to see. It’s far more rewarding than most of the movies aimed at them. I highly recommend it.