The true story of African-American women who were critical minds at NASA in the ‘60s and well beyond feels especially timely at the end of 2016. Not just because one of those brilliant women, Katherine Johnson, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, or because John Glenn, one the astronauts who relied on her precise mathematical calculations, recently passed. It’s a hopeful message reminding us that with acceptance, collaboration, and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity, tremendous things can be accomplished. These are the stories, and the people, that have always made America great.
Now, Hidden Figures isn’t totally immune to the on the nose sentiment that permeates historical dramas; the title itself has a double meaning that portends a heaping helping of sap. Despite some blunt dialogue, plainly symbolic imagery, and a swelling score at key moments – there are not one but three Will Hunting-esque chalkboard scenes, director and co-writer (with Allison Schroeder) Theodore Melfi pulls back before the film becomes mired in oversentimentality.
A great cast also keeps the breakthroughs and the ignorant butting of heads low-key, making the casual racism and sexism of the times all the more moving because it feels frustratingly normal.
Math prodigy Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is moved from the bullpen of female black “computors” at NASA’s Virginia facility to the Space Task Group – a bunch of white guys trying to crack the formulas for sending other guys into space. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) supervises the women, but is passed over for advancement opportunities. A new gadget called an International Business Machine also threatens the future of the mathematicians, but Dorothy sees opportunity. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) has the skills and the desire to be an aerospace engineer, but can’t attend the required classes at an all-white school.
Melfi does a good job of hopping between the stories of the three women while keeping the film cohesive. They’re together enough to show solidary, character-wise and as part of the overarching narrative, while their individual stories work separately and contribute to the whole. Katherine’s personal life, from her single mother struggles to romantic subplot with Jim (Mahershala Ali) could’ve been trimmed a bit.
Each faces bigotry in many forms, including middle manager types played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst. They aren’t overtly hateful, though their closed-off attitudes prove their prejudice, and it’s a credit to the film that these two don’t undergo a mawkish personality makeover. Even when professional triumphs come, they aren’t used to show (insincerely) that all societal issues have been cured.
Kevin Costner is well-cast as the results-driven head of Katherine’s department. He’s no stranger to ‘60s period pieces and the look suits him. So does the rugged, yet likeable demeanor that he underplays to prevent becoming a white savior as he (literally) smashes through the symbols of segregation.
The three leads are all great, earning sympathy without speechifying and creating characters that are more than just their femininity or blackness. Henson has a moment after a rain-soaked trek to a colored bathroom that she doesn’t make too big and her reactions to nonchalant intolerance are muted and graceful. Monáe is given much of the obvious, message-driven dialogue and she handles it with an earnestness that never feels forced or phony. She’s also a luminescent screen presence; after seeing her work in smaller roles here and in Moonlight, it’s apparent that she’s going to be a star.
The actresses, and the script, help skew expectations ever so slightly from the beginning. In their first scene, the ladies stand around their broken-down car. A stern-looking white cop pulls up behind, approaches them, and we’re pretty sure where things are headed. But, upon learning their credentials, the officer becomes more intrigued than impudent. It’s the start of a crowd-pleaser that pleases by tweaking formula in significant ways, even if the film subscribes to certain conventions.
Hidden Figures is actually interested in its subjects as people and pioneers, not just excuses for melodrama. And by extension we’re interested, too.