Sparkling performances breathe fresh life into Hidden Figures, a welcome, alternative perspective on the space race.
Growing up in the 1960s, it was easy for suburban, lower-middle class children such as myself to become besotted by the space program, though my earliest memory is the tragedy that took the lives of three astronauts. The idea of three men burning to death, trapped inside a capsule and unable to escape, scarred my psyche. Later, though, I recall listening to the car radio as my family drove home from an event in the summer of 1969, and looking up at the moon, and trying to picture men walking on it.
My fascination continued until the Apollo program ended, and with it my possibilities for walking on the moon. Those passing fantasies were reawakened when I watched The Right Stuff during its initial theatrical release, complete with intermission! Those fantasies were extinguished when Challenger exploded.
Hidden Figures stirs all those memories because it points out that they were incomplete. For me, it plays like a spin-off of The Right Stuff, raising its hand politely and drawing attention to a drama that unfolded behind the scenes.
The opening scene is a reminder of the widespread racism that was well-established in the U.S. by the late 1950s. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are friends who carpool together to their jobs at the Langley Research Center in Virginia. When their car breaks down, they are immediately suspected to be criminals because of the color of their skin, at least in the eyes of the white police officer who stops to investigate.
They are skilled mathematicians, but they are segregated into their own section of the building where they work, permitted only to use colored restrooms and expected to know and appreciate their subordinate position. White supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) tells them they should be grateful to have any jobs at all.
They are highly skilled, however, and are known as ‘human computers’ for their computational abilities. When a pressing need arises, Katherine is called up to the big leagues, as it were, and becomes the first person of color (and the only woman) to work in the Space Task Group, assigned to make computations for the fledgling space program.
Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, is under extreme pressure. The space race has intensified, and the U.S. is falling behind the U.S.S.R. He is more interested in results than in who produces them, and so when Katherine begins making contributions unlike anyone else, he seizes upon a rising star.
The racism in the Space Task Group is still present, compounded by sexism, but the pressure is intense upon everyone, and gradually, begrudgingly, Katherine becomes an essential element of the group’s success. As that’s happening, Mary makes the most of an opportunity to be involved in the mechanical design group. Dorothy, learning that her group will soon become redundant with the arrival of actual, physical computers, takes it upon herself to learn about that and figure out how to preserve, not only her own job, but also her fellow workers.
Writer/director Theodore Melfi, who made the audience-pleasing St. Vincent with Bill Murray, delivers a similar style of entertainment, following a similar formula with likable characters who need only a challenge worthy of their abilities to succeed. The big advantage here is that this is a true story, drawing from the lives of praiseworthy women who navigated turbulent waters to emerge as heroes worthy of imitation.
Katherine is not a dynamic character, but she is a hard-working, humble and modest, nose-to-the-grindstone type of genius, and Henson gives her an appealing shine. Costner, Spencer and Monae acquit themselves (and their characters) admirably, while Dunst and Jim Parsons (as a suspicious, doubtful, more outwardly racist mathematician) are fine as unpleasant people who must be taught a lesson in humanity.
As a prototypical ‘inspiring story based an real life,’ Hidden Figures is, to a certain extent, entirely predictable, yet this particular tale offers more than enough unexpected touches to make it a fresh and rewarding spin.
The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, January 6.