There’s nothing particularly remarkable the filmmaking behind Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, but it accomplishes something none of the several dozen films I’ve watched this fall have been able to do: completely shut off the real world.
It’s an odd thing to write in the context of a review (and it will certainly date this piece in an unfortunate way), but since November 8, 2016, and even in the weeks and months preceding that day, most of the cinema I consumed hearkened back with varying degrees of subtlety to the growing national and international threat that is the extreme political right wing.
Hidden Figures is having none of that, thank you very much. It’s a political film about a micro struggle against oppression, but it’s totally engrossing and delightfully self-contained. For 120 minutes, I thought of nothing but the three women at its heart, and at this particular moment, I couldn’t have asked for anything more delightful.
The film takes place in the early 1960s — a critical period for Cold War and, specifically, the race for space. The Mercury 7 have been chosen, but with the launch of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, NASA is beginning to lag behind its nemeses in Moscow.
Enter Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson). She’s a brilliant mathematician but also a black woman in the 1960s. At NASA, she’s relegated to the “colored only” West Campus where she and her fellow “computers” check the work of their white male superiors, while the launch team led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is trying to make manned space travel happen on the East Campus.
When a sudden need arises, Katherine joins Harrison’s team as their resident number cruncher, but attempts to simply keep her head down and do her job are met with resistance and hostility for the nerve she has to, I don’t know, pour a cup of coffee or spend too much time in the bathroom (explainable when the closest colored toilets are a half mile away). Despite this, Katherine thrives, and American men pierce the atmosphere for the first and second times. It’s a different story, however, when John Glenn (Glen Powell) is meant to orbit the Earth. Success there means inventing new math, so Katherine gets to work.
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) are the film’s other two primary protagonists. The former is knowledgeable and skilled enough to join NASA’s engineering division, but every time she applies, the goal posts are moved. This time, they tell her she’s not qualified because she lacks the educational pre-requisites for the job she seeks. She can take the necessary classes, of course, but they’re only offered at an all-white school.
Vaughn, meanwhile, has been acting as supervisor for the colored computers in an unofficial capacity. Her appeals to be considered for the position on a full-time basis fall on deaf ears, so she takes matters into her own hands and begins learning everything she can about the new IBM super computer that’s about to eliminate the jobs of her and all the black women unofficially under her.
The film is written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder and is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly. They do a terrific job presenting a clear A story with full and satisfying B stories and sprinkling in personal moments for all three women. Some of Hidden Figures‘ primary pleasures are the after-hours get-togethers Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy have. Work is rarely a topic discussed, and we simply enjoy them enjoying one another’s company. It’s the type of material that only works with actors who can charm your socks off, and this film has three front and center.
Henson is the standout with the only role that undergoes a character transformation of the three. Mary is Mary from when the film starts to the roll of the credits (which is perfect for the scene-stealing Monae). Dorothy is infinitely more subdued, but similarly consistent over the film’s two hours. Katherine begins unsure of herself and faces obstacle after obstacle in her new work environment, but she grows into an assertive and essential cog in the NASA machine — the only person John Glenn trusts to crack the code that is his re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
Both Costner (as her boss) and Mahershala Ali (as a man trying to win her affection) help bring her there, but not in a way that feels patronizing or pedantic. If anything, Katherine brings about change in Al Harrison, and the relationship they forge is based on mutual respect, not “saving.”
If the film makes any missteps, it’s that there’s a disconnect between the actual work these women do and the obstacles they must overcome in order to do it and do it well. The latter is powerful and inspiring. The former doesn’t really come into focus into the film’s final act. Before then, it’s only spoken of in generalities, which was too bad. Still, it’s hardly enough to take away from the overall experience, which is a straight-down-the-middle fastball but delightful and life-affirming.