Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are the unsung heroes of this audience-pleasing story
In the opening minutes of “Hidden Figures,” three African-American women are trying to fix their stalled-out car on the side of a country road. It’s Virginia in 1961, and a white police officer pulls up on the ladies and starts asking questions. You know where things are headed.
Except that’s not where they go. Soon the women are being given a police escort to their jobs at NASA, where they work as mathematicians, and the table is set for this fun, spirited celebration of the unheralded contributors to America’s space program.
“Hidden Figures” unfolds during a crucial time in American history: JFK is president, the Cold War is in full freeze, the space race is on and racial segregation is a fact of life. Against this backdrop, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three women who broke down barriers of sex and race and helped put a team of men in space.
Those women are Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). They are computers — as in those who compute, since computers as we know them today were still in their infancy and took up entire rooms — who are relegated to a basement office on NASA’s campus, far away from the action of the space program.
But their ambitions wouldn’t keep them there for long. Johnson is moved up to the Space Task Group, where she is assigned to check the math of a team of white men in white shirts, black pants and black ties, headed up by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Harrison is described as a hard-nosed, take-no-guff kind of guy, but as played by Costner, he’s the most tolerant, understanding and #woke individual at all of NASA.
Vaughan longs to be given the title of supervisor, which she’s told by the shrill Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) is simply out of reach. (She blames the corporate structure at NASA, but the racial implications of her message are clear.) So Vaughan keeps plugging away, learning FORTRAN in her spare time and making herself indispensable to that rigid corporate structure.
Jackson aims to attend graduate school but cannot without taking classes at the local school, which is only open to white students. She petitions a judge and gets him to allow her to attend the school by buttering him up and telling him his decision will go down in history, a sly way to stroke his ego while subtly exposing the intolerance of the law.
“Hidden Figures” takes a mostly casual approach to history and is rarely heavy-handed in its message, save for one scene where a fed up Johnson blows her top in front of her co-workers, an out-of-character moment that screams of awards show preening. (The music cues also tend to be a bit too on-the-nose; Pharrell’s “Runnin’ ” soundtracks several of Johnson’s frenzied sprints to the restroom.)
Otherwise, director Theordore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) lends a balanced, steady hand to the story, which builds to John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) launch into space. The three leads do fine work, especially in scenes they share together, even if Henson over-relies on frequently resetting her glasses atop her nose to prove scholarly.
Costner, in a dependable, studied and unflashy performance (see also his work in “McFarland, USA”), emerges as the silent hero of the story and is given the film’s biggest moment when he takes a crowbar to a sign designating a “colored” bathroom. It’s a standout moment that mathematics and equations can’t quite match in terms of drama. (Costner’s character is an amalgam of several real life NASA figures, and Costner played a considerable part in helping shape the role, according to reports.)
“Hidden Figures” takes on weighty issues but tackles them in a manner that is palatable to the masses. Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson were trailblazers whose fight deserves to be heard, and “Hidden Figures” honors them by turning their story into an audience-pleaser. They sent a man into space, and “Hidden Figures” does the same for them.
Rated PG for thematic elements and some language
Running time: 127 minutes