The inspiring true story at the center of “Hidden Figures” is one aching to be told. Three brilliant mathematicians struggle to get their due in the fledgling NASA program. Why do they struggle? Because they dare to be African-American and women. It’s a spirited account of the persecution these women faced and the barriers they boldly broke. At the same time it’s a film aiming at being a crowdpleaser and packaged with a glossy coat of Hollywood influence.
“Hidden Figures” is adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s biography of the same name. The story begins in 1961 fresh after the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik space mission. In full Cold War mode, the United States government begins pressuring NASA to catch up with the Soviets and put an American in space. To accomplish that in the pre-computer era NASA relied on human computers to put together equations and calculations. Many of these ‘computers’ were African-American woman who worked behind the scenes and without much credit.
The film focuses on three of these women, brilliant mathematicians working in a back room at the segregated Langley NASA complex. Taraji Henson gets the starring nod playing Katherine Johnson, a mathematics genius from birth. Octavia Spencer co-stars as Dorothy Vaughan, the eldest of the three friends and an aspiring supervisor. Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a fiery engineer who is consistently denied the promotion she deserves. One of the film’s true pleasures is watching these three actresses work. Henson, Spencer, and Monáe have spectacular chemistry but they also bring an immense amount of truth individually, even when their scenes are a bit on the nose.
Each of these brilliant women are in line for promotions yet they all meet some sort of racial or sexist hurdle at every turn. Most notable is Katherine’s assignment to the Space Task Group, a team of white male engineers tasked with getting their astronauts into space and back down safely. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the director of the group under intense pressure by the paranoid government. Harrison is all about results. He doesn’t see male or female, black or white. At the same time he’s impervious to the obstacles Katherine faces and the abuse she takes particularly by the wormy Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).
Co-writers Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (Melfi also directed) tell a powerful story but do so with splashes of fiction. Often this works in the movie’s favor but not always. Their additions may occasional take away from the real story, but they also give an honest depiction of the oppressive rules and attitudes of the time. Then you have Parson’s completely fictional character who is a conduit for those prejudices. The performance is fine but the character is scripted so tightly that it’s hard to believe in him. Kirsten Dunst has a similar fictional character but one that is handled much better.
“Hidden Figures” is a polished Hollywood movie through and through, but the power and importance of its story along with the three central performances easily overshadow any hiccups. I would even toss in Kevin Costner who offers up some of my favorite supporting work of the year. There is simply an irresistible quality to these characters that makes spending time with them a joy. And regardless of how predictable it may be, this is still an empowering, inspirational story that needs to be told.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS