There have been a few films about NASA and the space program, most well known among them probably Apollo 13. But most tend to be about the astronauts, which I suppose makes sense. There were hundreds of brilliant people that helped astronauts get into space and eventually to the moon, but it’s rare to see movies about those sorts of people. For this film, we get a different take, but the reason this was made is because it’s also an adaptation, and Hollywood loves that sort of thing.
Hidden Figures is directed by Theodore Melfi and is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. In the late 1950’s, the US was desperately trying to compete with the USSR to get a foothold into space. The USSR was first at getting the first satellite (Sputnik) and human (Yuri Gagarin) into space, although the US was first at sending a monkey into space (unlike Yuri, the monkey died during the journey). But the historical context is pretty clear: the US needed a win.
Project Mercury was the US program led by NASA to try to get a man into space, and at the time, mathematics prodigy Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), also called a “computer” (the term used before the machine version) worked as an analyst alongside fellow black women Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). The movie follows the story of how these three women became instrumental to the space program.
The primary focus is on Katherine Johnson, which makes sense, as she was pretty important. Katherine worked hard to make a difference in the still segregated environment, fighting against institutional racism despite not really wanting to make a fuss. Naturally, she eventually works to win over Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the director of the program, and other NASA higher ups Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst).
At the same time, Mary and Dorothy pursue their own attempts at success, in what I would call adding a bit of extra flavor to the movie. Janelle Monáe is so good as Mary Jackson that her story would otherwise be uninteresting, and Dorothy’s story is made less dynamic by the extremely low key performance by Octavia Spencer. She’s fine, but she was like a footnote in the movie.
These sorts of historical dramas can be a real drag, and I was worried when we had some romantic foils brought in (one played by Mahershala Ali). But luckily that stuff was only slightly touched on; Katherine’s character is well developed. Her interactions with Jim Parsons were … well, he’s playing a pretty clichéd character, and I wasn’t too impressed. But I really did like the interplay between Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Costner as the guy who just wants to get someone into space.
Taraji P. Henson is the star of the picture for good reason; she’s great! When she plays it low key, it’s still dynamic, and when she goes for the emotion, you buy into it. Her performance is one of the highlights of the last year, and overall, I found the movie to be pretty good. It moved along briskly, and although the ending was never in doubt, the journey was worth the effort. Take what metaphor from that you want.
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