It’s 1961 and the Space Race is proceeding apace. But NASA has taken a tumble and the Russkies have launched Yuri Gagarin into the history books as the first man in space. The US Space program clearly needs a kick up its propulsion units and into its starchy, white-shirted male-dominated world march three raw new faces ready to shake things up; a maths wizard, an up-and-coming engineer and a potential computer genius. The trouble is, they’re all women. Oh, and they’re black…
Theodore Melfi’s gorgeously-realised period piece is both refreshingly heart-warming and wonderfully uplifting and, as troubled as the world is today, it shows us just how far we’ve come - in some regards - in the last fifty years. Hidden Figures isn’t a hectoring, badgering movie wagging a disapproving finger at the past; it uses its three endlessly likable leads to slowly eat away at the ferociously-entrenched prejudices of the era and allows them to slowly dismantle them as they begin to earn the (sometimes grudging) respect of those around them. The contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson to the American space effort are well-documented and rightly regarded (Johnson even, coincidentally, crops up as a character in a recent episode of US sci-fi TV drama Timeless) but as Hidden Figures makes quite clear they had to fight tooth and nail every step of the way.
Initially – and reluctantly – employed by NASA as “computers” (hand-checking calculations worked out by a phalanx of white male scientists) the trio have a fight on their hands just to be even recognised by their superiors. The segregation, racism and sexism might appear shocking to sophisticated 21st century eyes – the girls have to use ‘coloured only’ restrooms and eating areas and there’s even a ‘coloured only’ coffee pot – but it’s handled with good grace and common sense, presented as horribly outdated and ‘of its time’ but the film never patronises or passes heavy judgment. Each of the girls locks horns with a straight-laced superior – Costner’s Al Harrison heads up the Space Task Group and Kirsten Dunst’s starchy Vivien Mitchell is in charge of “the computers” - but in time not only do the girls prove their worth as intelligent, forward-thinking professionals, those above and around them start to learn not to judge people by their sex or the colour of their skin. Respect is earned and learned on both sides.
Johnson’s story really powers the movie as she’s right at the heart of the battle to get America into pole position in the Space Race. Her mathematical skills are formidable much to the annoyance of her colleague Paul Stafford (Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons playing the role a bit like a properly-medicated Sheldon Cooper and minus the Bazinga! T-shirts) and by the time of John Glenn’s legendary Earth orbit in 1962 (which would have ended in disaster without her contributions) she’s pretty much a vital part of the team. The performances by the three leads tear up the screen – Henson, Spencer and Monae are forces of nature – and it’s a bit of a shame that once they’re settled into their posts we don’t spend more time with the three of them together. They do the film’s really heavy narrative lifting but Costner as the bristling and yet inwardly kindly Harrison is on the sort of form that reminds you just how good he can be (although the scene where he smashes up a ‘coloureds only’ sign hanging outside a restroom is a little hammer-handed) and whilst there’s not much for Dunst to get stuck into as ice maiden Mitchell, she’s at least allowed to show a touch of humanity at the film’s end as her fractious relationship with the resolute Dorothy Vaughan finally develops into an acceptance of each other’s place in the scheme of things.
Hidden Figures is a rich and uplifting experience. It may play fast and loose with historical accuracy (most of the girls’ achievements took place in the 1940s and 1950s, they were well-established by the 1960s, and many of the supporting characters are amalgams of various real-life folk encountered along the way) but then it’s the story that matters here, the thrust of what the girls did, the obstacles and resistance they encountered and how they rose above those obstacles to become enduring figures in modern American mythology. It’s a genuinely feel-good film which deals sensibly and with a commendable lack of hysteria with unpleasant prejudices and attitudes which have been pretty much long since consigned to the history books. Terrifically enjoyable and sweetened with just a hint of space age saccharine here and there, Hidden Figures is nothing less than a joy.
HIDDEN FIGURES / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: THEODORE MEFLI / SCREENPLAY: THEODORE MELFI, ALSION SCHROEDER / STARRING: TARAJI P HENSON, OCTAVIA SPENCER, JANELLE MONAE, KEVIN COSTNER, KIRSTEN DUNST, JIM PARSONS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected rating: 7 out of 10