The excitement of the United States space program back in 1961 is coupled with the heroic, pioneering contributions of three African-American women who must break through racial barriers in the absorbing and often stirring “Hidden Figures.” The film, directed by Theodore Melfi, who wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, is based on the true story recounted in the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.
“Hidden Figures,” set at the NASA offies in Hampton, Virginia, takes us behind the scenes in the buildings where many experts are doing the math and computer work needed to calculate the launches and trajectories of spacecraft, especially important in the space race with the Russians. To the lay person the insider talk is scientific mumbo jumbo, but the film makes it all very impressive so that we get a sense of the vastness of the problems involved and the life-and-death risks of being wrong.
For three black women to get ahead in such an environment is shown as daunting in then segregated Virginia. No matter their brain power, they are regarded as outsiders. The screenplay dramatizes the odds and celebrates their advancement, as well as looking into their personal friendships and family lives.
Think of the situation at the time. They are not even permitted to use the bathroom that colleagues use, but one must go all the way to another building far away every time the need arises. Intense music speeds up to underscore the running from one building to another, even in a drenching rain. I can’t say I liked using music this way, as well as in some other parts of the film. But the hyper score appears designed to give an edge to the film in an effort to achieve a popular style instead of a scientific and racial polemic.
What really keeps the film alive, in addition to some of the fast-paced editing that flips back and forth from NASA headquarters to the launching pads, is the super performances all around. Taraji P. Henson is superb as Katherine Goble, a math whiz who eventually amazes the white crowd around her. Octavia Spencer is likewise very special as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe is also appealing as Mary Jackson. They make the three women very likable, each in her own way, and one inevitably roots for them, which means rooting for the space program as well. They are also in effect battling for racial equality.
Kevin Costner is very firm as Al Harrison, the unit’s boss, a no nonsense type, which makes it all the more impressive when he realizes the potential of Goble and is quietly amazed at her ability. Her nemesis is Paul Stafford, a jealous engineer who looks down on her and is resentful when as she gains recognition. He is well-played with a sour disposition by Jim Parsons. Also on the sour side his Kirsten Dunst playing the boss to whom the women must report. One feels the racist attitudes all through the film.
There is also a strong supporting cast, including a likeable performance by Mahershala Ali as handsome Colonel Jim Johnson, who falls in love with Katherine Goble, later to be Katherine G. Johnson. Glen Powell does an affable job portraying sympathetic astronaut John Glenn.
In the end this is a feel-good movie that achieves telling a space advancement story from a different, double angle, emotionally celebrates the three real-life women who deserved special honors and emerges as an exceptionally good story to enjoy. A 20th Century Fox release. Reviewed December 24, 2016.