Glowing biopic about the black mathematical geniuses who worked at NASA in the late 1950’s and 1960’s at a discount pay grade. And they weren’t just black, they were – gasp! – women! Hidden Figures has a terrific screenplay by Allison Shroeder and Theodore Melfi (who directed), and so we have storytelling craft to support a great American history story, and it persuasively reconstructs the early NASA facilities with a retrofit eye and squeezes in the reality of color segregation. You have the unflappable Taraji P. Henson, nerdy, driven, outspoken, full of gusto, as analytic geometry genius Katherine Johnson – a performance that just pops off the screen. Then you have, not to short them, the greatness of Octavia Spencer as key IBM programmer Dorothy Vaughn and Janelle Monae as rocket engineer Mary Jackson as the other hidden figures – there’s an honorable stock of talent here.
I guess you can say I liked “Hidden Figures” a whole lot more than I ever imagined I would. I caught up to it late, after it’s been out three weeks and went from middle of the pack to head box office leader. When you look back at 2016, the three films that started out as healthy grossers only to do the improbable by accelerating box office numbers in later weeks were “Arrival,” “La La Land,” and yes, “Hidden Figures.” Of course. Audiences are starved for authentic inspirational stories as a remedy to our more conflicted contemporary times.
There is one unnecessary commercial element to the film and that would be the combined score by Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams and the late Hans Zimmer, distracting and subtracting from the strength of the film. When Katherine Johnson has to walk twenty minutes to the bathroom, or when Mary Jackson learns she is denied entry into a white school to get her degree, or when Dorothy Vaughn are told her division is impending disbandment, there is a pushy music score to tell you how to feel. These scenes would have played better in silence. I think there is no worse adversity than being hushed when you know more than anybody else in the room.
I give supporting actors Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst a lot of credit for playing unglamorous bigoted characters, with strong NASA credentials, that learn to appreciate the titular women of the film, while still subtly hanging onto their prejudices. Essentially it is a risk for Parsons and Dunst to be playing jerks. Yet it’s Kevin Costner as the tunnel visioned NASA supervisor Al Harrison, who doesn’t care about black and white, but algorithm numbers, who turns in a great supporting performance. He tears down the colored restroom sign in one scene, and says, “At NASA we all pee the same color.” Somehow there is a torrent desire to see Costner validate these “black computers,” because his opinion would count more than anybody elses.
In a reluctant way, Harrison eventually lets Katherine Johnson to attend key meetings with the top brass, and the movie is canny enough to highlight how much of an effect she had on astronaut John Glenn (handsomely played here by Glen Powell, an actor I’m not familiar with, but he has my attention for the future). Yes, we get some men into outer space but not without delays. “If she [Johnson] says the numbers are good, then I am ready to go,” says Glenn of his favorite NASA mathematician.
What lifts me up the most is Henson. She has spunk and glee, is compulsive but winnable, has math whiz intelligence and a voice to translate her analysis clearly, and had to play an oppressed woman of the unstable Civil Rights era time in Virginia. I knew I was being manipulated a few times for sake of dramatization, but on the inside I cheered, and undeniably, I gained some wisdom. “Hidden Figures” is a special film.
127 Minutes. Rated PG.
HISTORICAL DRAMA / THINKING TEENS / WEEKEND INSPIRATIONAL UPLIFT
Film Cousins: “The Right Stuff” (1983); “The Astronaut Farmer” (2006); “The Help” (2011); “Selma” (2014).