In the wake of famed astronaut John Glenn’s recent death, it seems appropriate that some of the unsung heroes of the Friendship 7 mission (and the NASA space program in general) have finally been given their due in director Theodore Melfi’s new movie, “Hidden Figures.” An incredibly timely and well-told story that serves as a nice counterpart to 1983’s “The Right Stuff,” the film shines a light on the African-American women who helped put Glenn into space during a time when neither African-Americans nor women were given those kinds of opportunities. Though it risks falling into the same traps as other feel-good dramas (after all, it’s basically an underdog sports film for the STEM crowd), “Hidden Figures” rises above its formulaic plot thanks to some terrific performances from the cast.
In the early 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a race to see who could get a man into space first, and with the U.S. desperately lagging behind its Cold War rivals, NASA needed all the brainpower it could get. What most people don’t know is that many of these employees were women (several of them African-American) who worked at the Langley Research Center in Virginia as human computers performing the complex calculations on the agency’s various projects. But because they were black, these brilliant mathematicians were tucked away in a room on the segregated west campus and largely ignored.
That all changes when math whiz Katherine Gobel (Taraji P. Henson) is promoted to the all-white east campus to work under NASA official Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) on the Atlas rocket launch. Though she’s treated like a second-class citizen by her co-workers (not only does she have to run half a mile across campus just to use the colored bathroom, but she can’t even share the same pot of coffee), Katherine quickly proves herself instrumental to the program’s success. Meanwhile, fellow colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), a headstrong supervisor who takes it upon herself to learn how to operate the IBM computers that will eventually replace her, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), an aspiring engineer who’s stymied by a law that prevents her from attending the classes required to advance in the field, make strides of their own through hard work and determination.
All three actresses are fantastic in their respective roles, and their scenes together are some of the best in the movie, but Henson is the clear standout as the shy, soft-spoken mathematician who lets her work speak for itself. This is a very different character than audiences are used to seeing from the feisty actress, but it’s one of her finest roles yet. Although Spencer and Monáe (who impressed with her feature film debut in Oscar frontrunner “Moonlight”) don’t get quite the same level of development as Henson, their character arcs are just as interesting. Additionally, Kevin Costner delivers his typical workmanlike performance as the demanding head of the Space Task Force (a composite character based on several people), while Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali and Glen Powell (as John Glenn) turn in good work in supporting roles.
“Hidden Figures” is a crowd-pleaser in the purest sense – it’s a charming, heartwarming and inspirational tale that skillfully combines light-hearted comedy with racially-charged drama. Though it’s refreshing to see a movie set against the backdrop of segregated America that focuses more on the barrier-breaking achievements of its subjects than the atrocities of the period, it’s not afraid to tackle serious themes like racism and sexism either. Melfi stays out of the way for the most part, relying on his actors to do a majority of the heavy lifting, but he deserves credit for the ease in which he navigates between the film’s three storylines. While Melfi takes a few liberties with the source material, mainly for dramatic effect, it’s handled so gracefully that you don’t really notice. This is the type of cinematic history lesson that’s both socially relevant and highly entertaining, and although “Hidden Figures” hits a number of familiar beats, there’s nothing ordinary about the incredible true story at the heart of it all.