Hidden Figures review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The space race stories of NASA scientists Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson went untold for decades until a few years ago. They proved to not only be trailblazers in their field during a tough time of racial discrimination in America, but also crucial to the success of NASA’s first manned space launch. This is a fascinating story that deserves to be known more widely in the areas of both history and science. And while this movie will make these historical figures more notable and inspirational for years to come, it does so with a movie that is more crowd-pleasing than crowd-informing.
I can’t exactly say I blame director Theodore Melfi for taking such a route, presenting a film that evenly touches on the racial issues, the hard science and the character dynamic. The leading ladies of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe do an admirable job of portraying Katherine, Dorothy and Mary respectively. They play off each other well that it’s a shame we don’t see more scenes with them together outside of driving to work together or attending a church function. The three of them work in entirely different fields at NASA, leading me to believe they had even less interaction in real life than they do in this film. I almost wish the movie would have lied some more so we could see some of this trio playing off one another.
The arc focused on most heavily is Katherine’s as a mathematician that proved her worth and then some to her tough-but-fair department director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). She has enough smarts to calculate the toughest of equations, even under the down-lookers of her uneasy co-workers not comfortable with a black woman in their bullpen. It’s still a challenge though, especially when the only bathroom for colored people is a mile away. Of course, Costner must come to the rescue and smash the Whites Only sign to state how we all pee in the same toilet. It’s a scene that is both funny and powerful, as with nearly every scene that tries to be entertaining and historic.
Katherine’s arc is so strong that it’s surprising the movie wasn’t solely her story. Dorothy’s tale of becoming a supervisor of NASA’s first computers is interesting and worth noting, but not nearly as intricate to carry an entire picture. Mary’s struggle with attaining a degree to become a top engineer feels as though it’s from another movie as her story doesn’t seem to conclude with space launch and is mostly forgotten amid the stronger scenes. Also wedged into the story are the racial riots of the time, but seen more from a distance as not to distract from the simpler struggles of trying to be promoted in NASA and pee in the same building. We don’t see much harassment in the streets, but we see plenty of Jim Parsons as a softly racist engineer trying to undermine Katherine and failing every time.
The movie is still very strong, however, when it focuses more on the science angle and less on trying to be all-encompassing of the racism of the era. It’s exciting to be caught up in the excitement of Katherine’s math, scribbling on a chalkboard as the music builds towards the inevitable snap of the soundtrack as she circles the answer. There’s plenty of tension as the rocket launches and the directors make the tough call of whether or not to accept Katherine’s choices of trajectory. For as strong as the movie forces us to cheer for every single scene, it’s impossible not to be caught up in the plucky and determined nature of these women that did amazing things.
Hidden Figures has already been promoted as a must for the classroom; several schools were given the chance to view the movie for free in theaters and are even being offered the movie on DVD for free to be seen in classes across America. And, yes, it is best suited for schools that want to hit a triple-hitter of covering science, history and female empowerment all in one neat little package. If the movie can inspire to such lengths, then it’s a littler easier to look past its made-for-moms format of pushing for a soft and cheer-worthy approach to such a powerful aspect of NASA history.