‘Hidden Figures’ combines science, melodrama and social justice in a charming and lively movie

January 23, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 23, 2017

Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures is a touching historical drama about trail-blazing NASA mathematicians who fought racial and gender stereotypes at the dawn of the space age as the nation was still reluctantly moving to endorse the promise of the civil rights movement.

The movie, based on the 2016 history book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, focuses on three women who worked at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., as computers — laborers who performed a wide variety of mathematical calculations at a time when the most powerful computers filled rooms and accepted input from punch cards. They are gifted mathematician Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), pioneering computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, who played a concerned mother in Snowpiercer) and ground-breaking engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).

Goble, a widowed mother of three, has the best-developed story. Her facility with abstruse, high-level mathematics wins her assignment to the Space Task Group. This group of about two dozen eggheads led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is charged with developing the math that will help American rocket ships and their astronauts safely journey where no man has gone before.

Goble, one of only two women in the group, and the lone non-white person in the room, struggles to win the respect of peers like Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, best known as Sheldon from TV’s The Big Bang Theory), who initially take her to be a secretary, janitor or worse. She also has a budding romance with Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), despite the two of them getting off on the wrong foot.

Vaughan helps set the course for the future, but in a very different way from Goble. After a bureaucracy personified by Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) quashes her efforts to be promoted to supervisor, Vaughan notices that NASA is struggling to get meaningful production from its brand-new room-sized IBM mainframe. Recognizing that she is in a dead-end profession, Vaughan begins teaching herself the arcana of information technology.

Jackson’s story, which is the most conventional of the trio, is handled efficiently: Her husband, Levi (Aldis Hodge), resents the limited success Mary has had at NASA and warns her that her efforts at advancement will ultimately come to nought. Meanwhile, her supervisor, Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa, beautifully delivering a short but important speech early in the feature) recognizes her engineering ability and encourages her to apply for a training program. Naturally, this puts her in conflict not only with Mitchell and her husband but with the segregated schools and courts of early 1960s Virginia.

Hidden Figures skips lightly over the details of the scientific, mathematic and computing challenges with which its characters are engaged. (The main exception is a scene where Stafford, Goble and teammates outline an upcoming mission’s flight path.) But it ably expresses just why these problems must be solved. The Russians are ahead of the U.S. at this early stage, and humanity has a history of weaponizing new technology; NASA will fail unless it can maximize the performance of its personnel and machines. I can’t tell you just how Goble finds the method to calculate the appropriate point for a space capsule’s re-entry into the atmosphere, but it’s exciting to see her triumph.

The script that Melfi (the writer-director of the 2014 independent film St. Vincent) and TV writer Allison Schroeder have crafted for Hidden Figures devotes more time to the prejudice that its characters faced as women and African-Americans in a workplace dominated by Caucasian men. More than once, one of the main characters walks into a room and finds herself openly goggled at by all white, mostly male co-workers who are completely unused to seeing a black person in a professional capacity.

The movie deftly underlines the social injustices that saturated the American South of the 1960s without overplaying its hand. If anything, the movie is rather flippant in its handling of segregated bathrooms. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” a character declares to comical effect in one scene.

The movie is largely set in the time between Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering orbit of the Earth in 1961 and the American response crewed by John Glenn in February 1962. (The movie also shows at least one suborbital Mercury space mission.) It manages to wring a surprising amount of drama from Glenn’s flight in Friendship 7 given that the astronaut went on to become a U.S. senator, returned to orbit aboard the space shuttle in 1998 and died of natural causes at the age of 95 just a few weeks before Hidden Figures premiered.

In the end, the movie emerges as an entertaining, informative and surprisingly lively tribute to the spirit and accomplishments of NASA’s path-breaking women and the often clueless people around them who gradually grew to embrace their irreplaceable talents and the abilities.

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