The story that “Hidden Figures” tells is so irresistible that you can almost forgive the fact that the movie itself is resistibly unoriginal. It’s an unabashed crowd-pleaser with a heavy history lesson undertow.
Directed by Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book “Hidden Figures,” it’s about the black female mathematicians who were employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the run-up to John Glenn’s 1962 orbit of Earth. (That Glenn, the last survivor of the Mercury Seven astronauts, died recently gives the film an unintended layer of poignancy.)
Unlike their white counterparts, the 20 or so women were given no official designation. They worked in a dingy basement far away from the white mathematicians and engineers in NASA’s Langley Research Center.
The film focuses on three standouts: Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who manages the African-American “computers” and chafes at not being given the rank of supervisor, since she already does the work; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), the most confident of the trio, who, to advance her work on the Mercury capsule prototype, crashes the all-white engineer training program at the University of Virginia; and shy Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), whose grasp of analytic geometry renders her indispensable to NASA, much to the dismay of the white mathematicians she mixes with on their own turf.
These women’s stories have not exactly gone unsung – Shetterly’s book was a bestseller – but the filmmakers keep pointing out how discriminatory their journey was. Katherine, for example, is shown repeatedly racing, in heels, to the bathroom for African-Americans a half mile across the Langley campus. When the situation, and others like it, present themselves to Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), an unsympathetic supervisor, she states matter-of-factly that “they’ve never had a colored in here before.” To most of the white NASA staff, segregation is “just the way things are.”
One of the few exceptions to this way of thinking is Space Task Group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), Katherine’s martinet boss. Oblivious at first to her difficulties, focused only on the Glenn mission, he comes to realize how valuable she is – and what she is up against. In the movie’s rowdiest scene, he storms over to the whites-only bathroom and resolves Katherine’s problem with a finality that is shamelessly satisfying.
I wish there had been a larger sampling of sympathetic white people in “Hidden Figures,” not because I’m touchy-feely but because, as dramatized, the scenario seems rigged. By making Harrison essentially the sole good guy, among a team that includes a particularly sniffy and condescending lead engineer (Jim Parsons), the movie simplifies a complex racial dynamic. We know that people like that engineer, or Vivian Mitchell, are in the movie only to be reformed by the end. They come to see the light. Meanwhile, we can see it coming a mile away.
I also never really sensed any seething animus among the black women toward their racially biased co-workers, although some of that must surely have been stirring around inside. The women are fitfully angry and continually frustrated, but mostly they’re steely in their determination to be the best that they can be despite the odds. Hate would only drive them off-course.
Because the three actresses are so intensely likable, it’s easy to buy into this relatively halcyon portrait. Spencer especially is great at playing both down-home and worldly-wise. And Costner gives three dimensions to what could easily have been a cardboard caricature.
The movie ends with clips and photos of the real women. As grateful as I was to see these clips, they made me pine for a documentary about the ladies. Memo to Ken Burns: Is there any law that says we can’t have both? Grade: B (Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.)