“Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.”
Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a math genius, graduating high school at age 14 and college at age 18 before going to work at NASA as a “human computer” for the space program. As an African-American woman in the early 1960s, Ms. Johnson finds herself challenging “the way it’s always been done” while tasking herself to discover the math needed to get astronaut John Glenn into orbit and back safely to Earth to hit a preset rocket launch date — keeping the United States in the space race against Russia. Fellow computer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) does supervisor work — without the pay or prestige — while trying to keep her work group relevant in face of the IBM machine meant to replace them. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) has all the makings of an engineer but must challenge old laws in court for the opportunity to excel. Overcoming gender, race, and professional lines, these three women prove themselves not only relevant but essential to the space program: true American heroes.
With the term “computer” nowadays indicating desktop and laptop devices with screens and keyboards, it’s disconcerting to hear the term used in reference to an individual. The term is borderline derogatory in nature: people referred to as literal tools like a calculator or slide rule… and just as disposable whenever a better tool becomes available. Trailers promise a great deal of sass and chutzpah from our underestimated heroes as they assert themselves, prompting others to set aside petty differences and get the job done, but do the antics undermine the message?
Something that sets apart this awards-season targeted film is filling supporting roles with Oscar and Golden Globe winners and nominees. Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison is so set upon getting the launch going that he’s oblivious to the treatment of the most important person in his brain trust, but he doesn’t stay that way. Kirsten Dunst plays Vivian Mitchell as the go-along who could do more but seems afraid to stick her neck out… until she does. Jim Parsons portrays Paul Stafford as an emotionless status-quo mathematician (not a far cry from his infamous television character but the non-funny version) who comes off as the most rigid, appearing astonished when he at last realizes Katherine’s potential. You could define this as incidental racism, but none of these folks seem like bad people; they each have to come to terms with adjusting their preconceptions.
The second scene sets the stage regarding people’s priorities. Our main characters are broken down by the side of the road just minutes from going again when a police car arrives. You can already see the assertion in the plump white cop’s swagger as he walks up to scrutinize three black women in the middle of nowhere. His suspicions turn to surprise the moment each produces a NASA employee identification badge, but it’s national pride that stomps out all other preconceptions when the ladies allow the officer to assume their importance in “beating those Commies into space.” The image of a speeding police car leading the women as an escort to work rather than criminally chasing them down speaks volumes — shorthand for the story to unfold.
Like the movie Loving — interestingly set in the same time and state while also featuring a television clip of the same John Glenn space launch — this is a story that shows everyone has potential, a staunch reminder that prejudgment is the root of prejudice, a thing that’s sadly taught from one gernation to the next. Glen Powell’s portrayal of the late astronaut John Glenn is important in the way he sees no lines; he only sees the people he’s placing his trust in to sit on top of an explosive-filled metal tube in the hopes he’ll come back alive. It’s easy to throw around blurbs like “a triumph of spirit” when reviewing a film like this, but in light of national pride and recent politics, it’s refreshing to see a film that shows individuals not only can work together but often enough had damn well better.
Hidden Figures is rated PG for thematic elements, language, and triumph of spirit.
4 Skull Recommendation Out of Four