“Hidden Figures” tells the true story of Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, three African-American women working for NASA. Katherine is a skilled mathematician, Dorothy the no-nonsense supervisor, and Mary the aspiring young engineer. The story begins in 1961 as NASA struggles to compete against Russia in the Space Race. Katherine is assigned to work in the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center, while Dorothy supervises the segregated west computing division and Mary works as a member of the space capsule heat shield team.
The film is based on the non-fiction novel of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, adapted by director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) and Allison Schroeder. While the film does detail the inherent racism the three women faced and had to overcome at the time, it does so in a more subtle way than is typically depicted, more in the form of passive-aggressiveness, whether it be through an empty kettle with a “Colored” label or Dorothy being refused service by the local library (while stealthily borrowing a book on Fortran). A recurring motif involves Katherine running half a mile simply to use the ladies’ restroom in the west computing division while trying to solve her assigned equations, leading to the removal of the sign placed above it, a pivotal moment of progress within NASA. There is also the prominent theme of IBM machinery taking over the women’s hard work, a struggle just as hard as the last one. One key aspect about the screenplay that is admirable is how the scientific terminology and equations for the NASA missions are presented in a way that is accessible for audiences, but isn’t simplified or dumbed down. The story also gives time to flesh out the three leads and explore their family lives, including the widowed Katherine becoming infatuated with and marrying Army colonel Jim Johnson, as well as Mary fighting in court to take night classes at the only school allowing her attendance. With the recent passing of John Glenn, the release of this film couldn’t be more perfectly timed, since it is just as much a fitting tribute to him as it is to the three women.
In terms of performances, Octavia Spencer gives a top-notch performance as Dorothy, capturing all of those subtle mannerisms while keeping a and Janelle Monae counters the soft-spoken persona of Mary with spunk and confidence. However, the standout performance is easily Taraji P. Henson, who portrays Katherine with a mix of determination and a degree of vulnerability. Kevin Costner gives probably his best performance in years as Space Task Group supervisor Al Harrison, a role that easily plays to Costner’s abilities. They are rounded out by supporting performances from Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Glen Powell (as John Glenn), and Mahershala Ali (as Johnson). The film features songs by Pharrell Williams (who co-produced the film and co-scored with Hans Zimmer), which are mostly a mixed bag. While there a few moments that truly shine, his music in other areas is more akin to a compilation of his popular hits.
“Hidden Figures” is a remarkable account of three unsung women who overcame prejudices and unbeatable odds to become part of the most ambitious space mission in American history.