Fox 2000 Pictures/Chernin Entertainment/TSG Entertainment/20th Century Fox
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Produced by Donna Gigliotto/Peter Chernin/Pharrell Williams/Jenno Topping/Theodore Melfi
Screenplay by Alison Schroeder/Theodore Melfi
Based on “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly
There are two stories of heroism running side-by-side in HIDDEN FIGURES. There’s the one we all know because it’s been so documented, told and re-told in so many ways (most memorably in 1983’s “The Right Stuff”) that it has become part of American legend. It’s the story of the 1960’s space race between America and Russia as NASA struggled to put a man in a spacecraft into orbit with the eventual goal of putting an American man on the moon before Russia.
Then there’s the other story that I myself had never heard of before in any way shape or form and I am just grateful that this story has at last been told. Because it’s just as much a heroic tale as that of those Project Mercury astronauts. In the 1960s, NASA did not as yet have electronic computers so they had to rely on women with extraordinary mathematical skills to calculate the data needed. These women were actually called “computers” and they were African-American.
In 1962 the American space program is in trouble. Sputnik 1 has been successfully launched and is merrily orbiting the Earth. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the director of the Space Task Group, the team primarily in charge of getting astronauts up into space. Hopefully without the rockets blowing up on the launch pad. Harrison is under a lot of pressure to get America into the space race in a big way and he needs someone who can do analytic geometry, do it quickly and do it right. The acting supervisor of the Colored Computers Group Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) says that there’s only one woman for the job; Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) who as a child was a mathematical prodigy, beginning college at the age of 15.
Mathematical genius or not, Katherine is still a black woman in the Jim Crow South and as such is still looked at as being just that: a black woman. No more and no less. She can’t even drink coffee from the same pot as her co-workers and has to walk/run half a mile back to the building where she used to work to relieve herself as the building housing the Space Task group has no Colored restroom. Not to mention the harassment she has to deal with from her immediate supervisor Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who gives her incomplete data, saying that she does not have the proper security clearances but yet he still expects her to make sense out of it and turn in accurate calculations.
Meanwhile, Dorothy engages in a battle of wills with her supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who not only refuses to promote Dorothy but actively looks forward to the day when the technicians from IBM will finish installing an IBM 7090 that will replace Dorothy and her girls. But Dorothy has a trick up her sleeve: she’ll teach herself how to program the 7090. Their friend Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who is working on the space capsule itself correctly identifies a flaw in the heat shield which impresses her boss, Dr. Zielinski (Oleg Krupa) to the point that he demands she go to school at night to get an engineering degree so that she’ll be fully qualified to work on the project. Problem is that engineering schools are segregated. But every problem has a solution and Mary’s is that she will go to court and petition for her right to go to school.
The three stories of how these women work together and separately to accomplish their goals, achieve their dreams and oh, yes…help put American astronauts into space is an incredibly fascinating one told with an astounding amount of heart. And as much as I cannot stand anything having to do with math, if you had told me I’d be on the edge of my seat worrying about the fate of mathematicians I’d have thought you had lost your mind. But thanks to exceptionally strong acting and solid directing, HIDDEN FIGURES does turn out to be quite suspenseful at times, even though we all know that the space program was eventually a success. But this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s the revealing of a secret part of what up until now I had always thought was one of the most well documented periods of American history.
The cast is top notch. Kevin Costner recognizes that he’s got a supporting role here and so stays in his place, only taking center stage in one or two pivotal scenes but then quietly stepping back to let the real stars of the movie continue to do their thing. A couple of people I know upon hearing that Taraji P. Henson was one of those stars said to me; “You mean Cookie from ‘Empire?’ Can she act?” Which told me that they didn’t know a thing about her because Taraji P. Henson demonstrated years ago that she can act very well indeed. My wife Patricia pointed out something to me that I didn’t notice but upon reflection of certain scenes I can see exactly what she’s talking about. When you see the movie (and you will see it) notice how skillfully Taraji uses her glasses as a prop to enhance, disguise, amplify and demonstrate her emotional moods. And we all know Octavia Spencer turns in Academy Award performances like she invented them so there’s no reason to even go there. But I will say look for one pivotal scene she’s in which I’m convinced is a homage to a very famous scene in “The Right Stuff.” And as in his TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” Jim Parsons plays a brilliant manchild who’s a dick. But this one is way meaner in spirit than Sheldon Cooper. It’s a nice change of pace for him. Kirsten Dunst really surprised me in this one and she makes a fine adversary for Octavia Spencer to spar with.
But it’s Janelle Monae who walks off with the MVP title for this movie. She was clearly born to be an actress and she never steps one foot wrong the entire running time of the movie, easily holding her own with her far more experienced co-stars. She’s a joy to watch anytime she’s onscreen, the rapport between her, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson genuine and uplifting. I don’t say this very often about a movie but I’m pleased and proud to be able to say this about HIDDEN FIGURES: everything you’ve heard about it is true and if you haven’t seen it yet, please do so at your earliest opportunity.