D: Theodore Melfi / 126m
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa
In 1961, the USA and the USSR were in a race to put a man into space. The Russians had managed to send up a mannequin and a dog on separate missions, while the Americans were struggling to stop their unmanned rockets from blowing up shortly after take-off. The team responsible for this string of non-fatal disasters was based at the NASA complex in Langley, Virginia. In fact, there were several teams working there, including a coloured section overseen by Vivian Mitchell (Dunst). Of the women that worked there, three were best friends: Katherine Goble (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Monáe). Each had their own specialty: Katherine was a maths genius, Dorothy was a more than competent supervisor (and latent programmer), while Mary was an engineer.
Despite their obvious capabilities, the institutionalised racism of the time ensures that each of them remains in a pool of temps to be drawn on as and when required. Dorothy is the de facto supervisor of the group, but isn’t officially recognised as such. Mary’s desire to be an engineer is hampered by her needing to take a specific engineering course – which is taught only at a non-segregated school. And Katherine’s intuitive knowledge of advanced mathematics is under-utilised on a regular basis. Things begin to change though, when Katherine is seconded to the Space Task Group, the team responsible for calculating the launch and landing coordinates for each rocket mission.
Led by Al Harrison (Costner), the team is as inherently racist as an all-white male environment could be. Only Harrison seems able to look past the colour of Katherine’s skin, but he has too much on his plate to ensure that everyone else does. With her work constantly undermined by Harrison’s second-in-command, Paul Stafford (Parsons), and having to spend too much time checking other people’s calculations, Katherine struggles to make any headway in having her talents recognised. When the USSR succeeds in sending Yuri Gagarin into space (and bringing him back), the pressure is on to do the same with a US astronaut. With the arrival of an IBM mainframe computer that will process mathematical formulae and calculations much quicker than Harrison’s team of “computers”, Katherine faces an even bigger challenge: how to retain a human element amongst all the mathematics, and how to ensure that any future manned space flights remain as safe as humanly possible. It all leads to the first manned orbital flight, and making sure that astronaut John Glenn (Powell) returns home in one piece.
Those with a good memory for last year’s Oscars will remember the outcry over the Academy appearing to be racially biased against black and ethnic movie makers. Stars such as Will Smith boycotted the Oscar ceremony, while contention reigned over the nominations the Academy had made in the first place. A year later, and we have Hidden Figures, a movie almost designed to address the issue, and which should see itself gain a slew of nominations. However, the movie is the victim of felicitous timing, having gone into production a full year before last year’s Oscars. Nevertheless, it’s the kind of feelgood, inspiring, let’s-throw-a-light-on-a-little-known-aspect-of-recent-US-history movie that charms audiences and critics alike. And it doesn’t hurt that co-writer/director Theodore Melfi has assembled a great cast to do justice to his and Allison Schroeder’s screenplay, itself adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterley.
While Hidden Figures doesn’t necessarily stand or fall on its performances, having such a (mostly) seasoned cast pays off tremendously. Henson is terrific as Katherine, the unsung hero of the Friendship 7 mission who is more than just a maths genius, while Spencer and Monáe provide equal measures of grit and determination as Dorothy and Mary, guiding their real-life characters through the many professional, personal, and racial pitfalls the two women experienced at the time, and their inspirational, dedicated responses to each potential setback. Both actresses are equally as terrific as Henson, even if they have a little less to do in comparison, but as a trio they prove to be inspired casting. The same can be said for Costner, playing yet another (fictional) fair-minded, no-nonsense authority figure, but doing so with a great deal of charm and delivering his lines with the necessary amount of gravitas and persuasion. The only character who sticks out as unnecessarily stereotypical is Parsons as Katherine’s racist, jealous colleague, who constantly feels threatened by her presence and her abilities. Reduced to giving her glowering looks and blocking her attempts at personal recognition, Parsons’ performance does the actor no favours and will have many viewers thinking, “he’s just playing an evil version of Sheldon Cooper”.
As Mrs Mitchell, Dunst at least gets to see the error of her ways by the movie’s end, while there’s solid support from Ali and Hodge as Katherine’s love interest and Mary’s husband respectively. And there’s a mischievous turn from Powell as John Glenn, who won’t take off unless Katherine has checked the numbers. With so many enjoyable, and finely-tuned performances, the movie is free to explore the ways in which Johnson et al became so integral to the success of the Friendship 7 mission after so many failures. There’s subterfuge (on Dorothy’s part), legal wrangling (by Mary), and pure dogged persistence by Katherine. While it’s true that all three were in the right place at the right time, it’s still equally true that they took advantage of the chances given them, and made the most of those opportunities. In doing so, they forged a path for women (and not just black women) that is still being benefitted from today, and the movie is eager to highlight their achievements – which is as it should be.
But though these achievements are rightly recognised and celebrated, and the tensions inherent in the efforts to put Glenn into orbit are confidently addressed and shown, it’s when the movie steps away from the base at Langley and tries to paint a wider picture of the period that it proves to be less successful in its efforts. There are references to the growing civil unrest in the country, and we get to spend time with the trio’s family and friends on various occasions, but Katherine’s romance with Colonel Jim Johnson (Ali) aside, much of these scenes and sequences feel like filler, particularly the political discussions between Mary and her husband, which seem like they’re prodding the movie in another direction, but which ultimately amount to nothing.
Otherwise though, Hidden Figures is a lovingly rendered tribute to three women who smashed through not one but two glass ceilings and contributed greatly to the US winning the space race and eventually landing on the Moon. That their contributions have taken so long to be recognised and honoured by the wider public is a travesty that the movie addresses with no small amount of style and grace. Melfi is to be congratulated for taking such an inspiring, untold tale and doing it full justice, and in the process, making one of the most enjoyable, inspiring and rewarding movies of recent years.
Rating: 8/10 – shining a light on an overlooked story from the early Sixties, Hidden Figures is a generous, captivating movie that plays equally well as both an historical drama and a comedy of manners; with a trio of memorable performances, and richly textured direction from Melfi, this is an object lesson in bringing history alive and making it completely accessible.