Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
When I first heard about Hidden Figures, I knew it was going to be a movie that I really wanted to see. As I’ve said multiple times on this blog, I’m a sucker for anything involving space and NASA, and space race stuff is what gets me the most excited. A story I knew nothing about? Involving the early days of NASA? I’m all in. That it also happens to be a civil rights story and feature the work of American treasure Octavia Spencer is just added bonus. Seriously, it had me at “space race.”
Hidden Figures follows the stories of three African-American women working for NASA as “computers,” which really was the term before people actually had computers. Their jobs were to more or less work on doing calculations for various aspects of the space program. Without trying to be too maudlin or sappy, the story depicts the struggles that these women face in accomplishing their jobs in a world where segregation was still in force and where a lot of people thought that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. That’s a lot to unpack, and there really are three different, fully-realized stories here.
The first concerns Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who is in many ways the most outspoken of the trio. At the very least, she is the one least concerned about ruffling racial feathers. As NASA ramps up to put a man into orbit, desperately chasing the Russian space team, Mary is requested from the temporary computer pool by Karl Zielinski (Oleg Krupa) for permanent assignment. Karl pushes her to consider a degree in engineering despite her gender and race. Since she has less of a problem creating waves, she goes for it, requiring a court order to allow her to take night classes in an all-white high school.
Second is the story of Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Dorothy is the de facto head of her department, performing all of the duties of a supervisor without the title and (importantly) without the pay. Standing in her way seems to be Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who is never unprofessional but also never very helpful in anything Dorothy wants to do. With NASA getting a new, gigantic IBM capable of doing all the work of her temp computer pool and more, Dorothy takes it on herself to learn FORTRAN so that she won’t be phased out of a job after the current launches.
The third story is really the central one, which is why I have saved it for last. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is one of those super-genius, intuitive number crunchers who, had she been born male and white, would be heading a department at NASA. She, thanks to an expertise in analytical geometry, is transferred to the Space Task Group, working under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who is notoriously difficult to please. What stands in her way is a number of things. Since segregation is still in full effect, each time she needs to use a bathroom, she needs to take a half-mile hike across the NASA campus to find an appropriate bathroom. Her gender and color make her an outcast in her section to everyone but Harrison (who merely wants results), especially to Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who seems to be threatened by her. She also has the only romantic subplot of the film. As a widow with three children, she attracts the attention of National Guard officer Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), who is recently stationed in the area.
Hidden Figures works for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons it works is that the story itself is interesting. I find the space race interesting because of what it truly entailed. This was an entirely new thing for everyone involved, and the dangers that were faced were not known. So much could (and did) go wrong at just about every stage, and eventually, it put people’s lives on the line. We were strapping men to the fronts of missiles and shooting them off the planet. The guts that took, the genius, the work…it’s astonishing, especially when you consider that the computers involved in the first moon landing had less processing power than even a low-end smartphone.
But the real win here is in how Hidden Figures handles the civil rights-type struggles of the three women. In many films that deal with this era, what we often get are the stories that are white-centric. It’s the main problem I had with The Help. That’s a civil rights story to be sure, but it’s the white person who comes in and helps those “po’ folk” who can’t help themselves. That’s not the case here. In all three of the stories, there are certainly a few white people who open some doors or who merely act as human beings. When Al Harrison finds out about Katherine’s daily treks to find a bathroom, he takes a crowbar to a bathroom sign, allowing her to use one much closer to her desk. Mary makes an impassioned case to a judge, who allows her to cross racial lines at the high school. But, and this is important, this is a fight that these women take on themselves, eyes open. Sure, they get help, but they are very much in charge of their own destinies and they very much take action to change the status quo.
I don’t want to sound like a simp, but Hidden Figures is an inspiring story, and it manages to do this without being corny or forced. It feels like a real thing. I mean, I know it was based on real history, but it doesn’t come across for the most part as being “Hollywoodized.” It plays things straight, because the real story is good enough.
2016 is turning out to have been a very good year, and I am very pleased that I wasn’t disappointed with a film I was this excited to see.
EDIT: In my rush to get this review up on Sunday, I realize that I forgot something I did want to mention. Another place where Hidden Figures excels is in its soundtrack, much of which was done by Pharrell Williams. Williams's score manages to evoke the past and still stay modern. It's a nearly-perfect accompaniment to the film, and I don't know that a lot of people have talked about just how good the score is. Were I someone who cared a great deal about music and who listened to a lot of music, it's a soundtrack I'd consider buying, and that's not something I say that often.
Why to watch Hidden Figures: It’s about NASA.
Why not to watch: I’ve honestly got nothing here.