Directed by: Theodore Melfi.
Written by: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.
Starring: Taraji P. Henson (Katherine G. Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Mahershala Ali (Colonel Jim Johnson), Aldis Hodge (Levi Jackson), Glen Powell (John Glenn), Kimberly Quinn (Ruth), Olek Krupa (Karl Zielinski), Kurt Krause (Sam Turner), Ken Strunk (Jim Webb), Lidya Jewett (Young Katherine Coleman).
It would take someone a lot more cynical than I to resist a film as charming as Hidden Figures. You could certainly argue that the film is clichéd, that it takes what was undoubtedly more complicated history, and dumbs it down a little bit, and then forces it into an inspirational narrative. Or you could complain about why a movie about African American women working at NASA in the 1960s, feels the need to add a romantic subplot, or that the antagonists here are both too one note, and let off too easy. The movie doesn’t really have all that much new to say on race relations, Civil Rights, etc. It is the type of movie that personifies Middle Brow – and allows everyone to leave to theater feeling proud of themselves. Yet, despite of all of that – or perhaps even because of parts of it – Hidden Figures is a completely charming movie, extremely well-acted by its three leads, and truly inspirational for anyone who sees it. Complain all you want about the clichés – the movie just simply works.
The movie takes places in the 1960s at the height of the Space Race – which America is currently losing to the Soviet Union. The NASA unit headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is in charge of their maned tests, and they’re falling behind, in part, because they are struggling with the math. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who we have met as a child, is a math genius – and despite the fact that she is a woman, and black, she has gotten a few advanced degrees, and a job at NASA as a “computer” – essentially checking all the “smart” people’s numbers. She is assigned to Harrison’s unit, where she is the only African America, and while no one is overtly racist, they are none too welcoming either. Her two best friends are Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), who is a supervisor in all but title (and the pay increase that would go along with it) of the “colored computers” – who sees quite clearly when NASA starts unpacking a giant IBM computer she better learn how to use it or get a new job, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who wants to be the first female – and black – engineer at NASA – but first that requires her to take some extension courses, which she cannot do because the school they are held at is still segregated.
You know where this is going, of course, but getting there is still so much fun. One of the great things about Hidden Figures is how it gives all three of its leads their own distinct journey, while also building their friendship together. The three actresses are perfectly cast – Hensen has perhaps never been better (I’ve never seen Empire, or I’d remove the perhaps) than she is here as a woman who has to do more work than anyone else, and still gets no respect. She is shy and quiet – unless she has to stand up for herself, or her ideas- then you don’t want to mess with her. Spencer is wonderful in what is the Octavia Spencer role – you hire her because you know precisely what she’ll give you. Monae is the breakout star though – following her great work in Moonlight a few months ago, if nothing else this proves that if she wants to, Monae will become a huge movie star. She’s that good. The standout supporting performance in by Kevin Costner – who is never better than when in a movie set in the 1960s for some reason, and who sinks into his role as the gruff mentor well. Jim Parsons and Kristen Dunst fair less well as the antagonists of the story – but that’s really because they aren’t given much to do. Dunst is on hand for one of the films best moments when she tells Spencer that she has nothing against her and her “girls”, and Spencer relies “I’m sure you believe that” – a calm, but biting way, to cut her down (not to mention a fine response to Trump supporters, who try and tell you it had nothing to do with racism).
Directed by Theodore Melfi, who also co-wrote with Allison Schroeder from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures is straight up the middle filmmaking –and that is the perfect choice for it. This is a great movie for older children – particularly girls, who are still being told that they suck at math for some reason. It’s a truly inspiring story, isn’t sickeningly sentimental and it’s wrapped in an entertaining package. Complain about the clichés all you want – the film works like gangbusters