Movie Review: ‘Hidden Figures’
The great Space Race of the 1960s, as history books will explain, was a time filled with hope, innovation, and bravery. Hope amongst the American population, excited at the prospect of sending a man into the stars. Innovation surrounding the technology used to accomplish such a Herculean task. And bravery required of the pilots who were lined up to be the first human to travel where no man has gone before.
But little does history tell of the individuals who were instrumental in making all of that happen. See, Hidden Figures refers to both the unsung heroines who helped NASA scientists execute the perfect launch and the missing factors of a very large mathematical equation only a rare, intelligent mind could solve.
Taraji P. Henson is that rare mind at the center of director Theodore Melfi’s sharply executed film that pays tribute to Katherine G. Johnson, the real-life beautiful mind behind the intricate formula that helped astronaut John Glenn orbit the planet in 1962. Henson is flanked by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, playing Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, respectively, fellow math mavens (or “human computers”) who also played key roles in NASA’s historic launch. Together, they are the women who rose through the ranks of the Langley Research Center during a time when segregation was a harsh, widespread reality and the notion of a highly accomplished African-American woman was unheard of.
While the film dips into the personal lives and struggles of Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary, it also attempts to service its other characters, namely the other (white) players who figure into this true story. Kevin Costner is Al Harrison, the gruff head of the Space Task Group, blown away by Katherine’s analytical talents. (In one overly earnest and obligatory scene involving a bathroom sign, it’s established that he’s a supporter of equal rights and not just a stiff white collar determined to beat the Russians.) Then there’s Kirsten Dunset as a stodgy, semi-icy bureaucrat who stands in the way of Dorothy’s promotion (a thankless role). And Jim Parsons demonstrates his knack for stink eye as Paul Stafford, a colleague of Katherine’s who doesn’t warm up to the idea of sharing his work with a woman, let alone a black woman.
But Hidden Figures clearly belongs to Henson, who, with her perfect posture, horn-rimmed glasses, and intellectual passion, manages to make Katherine more than just a whiz with numbers. (Writers Allison Shroeder and Melfi do an admirable job rounding her out.) She’s a loving mother and daughter as well as a widow, a fact that allows her to flirt with Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), an army officer she meets on campus. It’s a great enough role that may have earned an actress of her caliber an Oscar nod in another time and place — twenty years ago, back when the politics of awards season was an entirely different animal. Dorothy and Mary are also given a few moments to shine; you can’t help rooting for these women and celebrating their accomplishments by the time the closing credits roll.
Hidden Figures is a pleasant throwback that works, a feel-good, true story for a time when too many of us are inundated with feel-bad, fake-news.
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