Hidden Figures Review

Hidden Figures (2016) Movie Review by John Walsh

Director: Theodore Melfi
Writers: Allison Schroeder (screenplay), Theodore Melfi (screenplay) 
Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe

Hidden Figures is the highly enjoyable, heartwarming and at times humorous biopic from Theodore Melfi. It’s takes us back to 1961, a time of racial segregation and widespread sexism, at the beginning of the space race between the two Cold War superpowers. Based on the fairly unknown stories of three NASA scientists whose calculations, coding and engineering feats were integral to John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth and many later historical missions.

The film follows the lives of Katherine Goble (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) part of the female dominated, human computers group tasked with performing calculations before the advent of their digital successors. We meet an irritated Al Harrison (Kevin Costner); a NASA director, frustrated by the slow progress in the fitting of a new IBM mainframe and in urgent need of someone capable of performing advanced analytical calculations. The organisation is forced to broaden its workforce and become a meritocracy of sorts in its urgency to catch the Soviet Union; giving Katherine, a mathematical prodigy; Mary, an aspiring engineer and later Dorothy, the opportunity to finally show their talents and further their careers, which had been denied any recognition and faced stagnation prior to the films events.

Katherine initially struggles to adapt to her new work environment and the intense demands placed upon her. The cold, racist intolerance that greets her from the white male dominated, space task group and the half mile dashes to the sole ‘colored only’ toilet in the West area section of the Langley Research Centre, not helping matters. Mary and Dorothy face their own trying set of circumstances too. The former having to overcome draconian state laws, despite having an encouraging engineering mentor in Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), just to be able to attend night classes at a non-segregated college. The latter being denied a deserved promotion to the role of supervisor, whilst pretty much doing the job already, by the condescending, racist in denial Vivian (Kirsten Dunst). “That’s NASA for you. Quick with rockets and slow with advancement” Vivian tells Dorothy, a quote which represents the wider story in microcosm.

The trio of Tatraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe deliver stellar performances in this film. Their three characters lives are tightly woven together into the main story and you get a real sense of bond and camaraderie between them from their first moments on screen together in Dorothy’s stalled car all the way through to the end. Schroeder and Melfi do a truly fantastic job of developing each of them, effectively splitting their screen time to really focus on each characters individual story arc. Katherine is the clear lead, of course, with much of the films main action focusing around her attempts to help both successfully and safely send Glenn into space then bring him back home in one piece. She delivers an explosive, powerful speech after getting soaked through during one of her numerous runs to the toilet across the complex and being questioned on her frequent absences after returning. Mary’s journey and fight against institutional racism to become NASA’s first black female engineer is also beautifully portrayed, her reactions both inside and outside the court to being allowed lessons at a white only college was particularly memorable. Dorothy too has her moments. Fighting tooth and nail for both her and her ‘computers’ careers, by learning to code the new IBM machine that threatens to end them. She also has a particularly poignant moment after being removed from a public library for venturing out of the ‘colored only’ section, taking the book which ultimately aids her in the above process.

The supporting cast are also excellent for the most part, providing a decent platform for the leading trio to build from. Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst play Paul Stafford; the passive racist, rather annoying, openly sexist head engineer of the task group and Vivian Mitchell; the equally ignorant head of the computers group very effectively. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison and he quietly delivers a quality performance as the often moody, goal driven director of the task group. He does have a few cringe moments, I’m not going to lie, especially when removing the ‘colored bathroom’ sign with a hammer. His “At NASA we all pee the same colour” quote directly afterwards, although bordering on cringeworthy, was quite humorous and reflected the organisations growing realisation that in order to catch the Soviets, everyone would have to pull together. That leaves just a couple of honourable mentions for Mahershala Ali as Colonel Jim Johnson; who added a bit of romanticism to the story as his relationship with Katherine developed throughout and finally Glenn Powell as John Glenn; the charismatic astronaut who is the only non person of colour outwith Al Harrison perhaps to not come across as at least a little racist.

That’s not to suggest the other characters, such as Paul and Vivian, remained utterly ignorant, racist cretins, because they absolutely didn’t. Both showed signs of development and changes in their attitudes as the film progressed. Vivian approving Dorothy and her groups transfer to working with the IBM machine with the warmth and humility lacking earlier. Whilst Paul, who was visibly disgusted at Katherine’s drinking at the shared coffee station early in the film, hands her a cup in one of the very last shots.

Visually, the film was beautifully shot with excellent costume and hair design. Mandy Walker blended archive footage from around the time almost seamlessly with shots from the films.

Musically, the film was scored by Hans Zimmler with Pharrell helping in the producing of several tracks, including a few of his own. The music fit in well with the period and ‘Runnin’ from Pharrell worked well in the comedic scenes featuring Katherine’s dashes across the complex.

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