Based on the remarkable true story about the space race in the 1960s, “Hidden Figures” is a clever double entendre, referring to the complex and cutting edge mathematics as well as the unsung heroes who helped put the first American rockets into space. Spanning the crucial years between Sputnik’s pioneering launch in 1957 and John Glenn’s record-breaking triple orbit in 1963, it is a touching and light look at race relations in Virginia, the power of teamwork and human innovation, and an inspiring story for women and minorities in the science and mathematics fields.
Katherine (Tajari P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae) are a mathematician, computer scientist and engineer for NASA, in a time and place where it was unheard of for an African-American woman to contribute to a competitive and white-male dominated industry. They deal with racism and sexism as they strive to simply use their talents to contribute to one of the greatest human achievements in history.
Blending elements seen before in “Good Will Hunting,” “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Remember the Titans,” this is a film that could easily be mistaken for one of Ron Howard’s biopics, with one stark exception; the tone is considerably more upbeat and family friendly. Even the issues of racism and sexism in the workplace are dealt with using kid gloves, which I must say, made it a much more entertaining and triumphant story. The film could have easily dwelled on the plight, but instead chose to celebrate the achievements of these three innovative women through humor and charm, with each of them breaking different yet equally important barriers.
Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) play good cop/bad cop, and do an admirable, albeit archetypical job in supporting roles. The true beauty, however, is in the manner in which the inequity of the time is shown, and the grace and patience by which the women handle their lots in life.
The rest of the supporting cast is filler. Lots of white men with glasses, white short-sleeved shirts and ties. An army of NASA nerds. Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge and the impossibly handsome Glen Powell (John Glenn) all contribute with intentionally subtle yet effective performances.
Director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) handles what could have easily gone off the rails in a terrific way. Balancing all of the elements of the film nicely, it isn’t too heavy on the math, the racism, or the historical implications. It delivers a handful of powerful speeches that might border on the Disney side of inspiration, but they are effective nonetheless.
“Hidden Figures” is one of the most well rounded films of the year, with a natural appeal to nearly every audience. I was particularly impressed with Tajari P. Henson’s performance, and would put her into the top-five performances of the year in the Best Actress category. I expect there may be a few other nominations, and it may be a critical dark horse as we approach the Academy Awards, particularly after its successful opening weekend box office haul (more than $22 million, knocking “Rogue One” out of first place).
The historical story is incredible, with frighteningly simplistic technology, in contrast to recent developments in jet propulsion, materials and space innovations. I would strongly recommend this film to the younger generation as both a history lesson and a model of perseverance.