Review: Hidden Figures
PLOT: The true story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematician who, along with her African American colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) overcame segregation to become invaluable members of the NASA brain trust in the early days of the space race.
REVIEW: I actually saw a bit of Theodore Melfi’s HIDDEN FIGURES way back at this year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, where select scenes were previewed in order to wet appetites for the still-in-production film. Watching the completed version, my prediction, that HIDDEN FIGURES would wind-up a solid piece of entertainment boasting some top-notch performances, came true.
It certainly tells a fascinating story, giving the audience some much needed insight into the major contributions made by African-American women to the space program, with John Glen's eventual orbit around the earth, relying upon their calculations. It’s a story we haven’t really seen before, and Melfi tells it in an accessible, bound-to-be crowd-pleasing way. It makes a fine companion piece to something like Philip Kaufman’s THE RIGHT STUFF, and is particularly well-timed given Glenn’s recent passing.
Usually, these movies are made specifically about the astronauts, so it’s interesting to see more about the day-to-day ground operations, which we see here was a product of its time, complete with heavy segregation. Henson, Spencer and Monáe’s characters have to deal with not only the hardcore racism of their Virginia home-state, but also the institutional racism of NASA, which, at best, is fuelled by ignorance.
Unlike THE HELP, HIDDEN FIGURES allows these women to anchor their own stories. Yet, to the film’s huge benefit, melodrama is kept to a minimum, with the only slight concessions being Johnson’s romance with a local military man (Mahershala Ali – a welcome presence as always). All of the arcs are fascinating, from Spencer’s mastering for the first IBM’s (at NASA, the word “computer” refers to the women doing the math – such as Henson & Monae), to Monae’s attempt to desegregate a local school so she can take some much needed MSC-level courses to become a full physicist.
Best of all is Henson, as Johnson’s, entrée into the inner sanctum of NASA, where her computing skills get the attention of her supervisor, played by Kevin Costner, whose respect for her encourages him to help desegregate the workplace. Henson really gets an opportunity to shine here, in a role far removed from “Empire”, demonstrating the extreme versatility she’s rarely been able to demonstrate due to a lack of roles.
It’s worth noting that the late Glenn comes off very well here, with Glen Powell (or EVERYBODY WANTS SOME) portraying him in the same nice guy manner Ed Harris famously did in THE RIGHT STUFF. Early on, he goes out of his way to befriend the African-American women, and is shown to have complete faith in them throughout, a nice tribute to the man.
Through it all, Melfi keeps HIDDEN FIGURES moving along at a quick clip, with the two hour plus running time going by fast. While it’s maybe a bit too glossy at times, and the Pharrell Williams soundtrack (complementing Hans Zimmer’s score) feels a shade too commercial, the movie is thoroughly entertaining, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for a broad audience, and a terrific family flick.