'Hidden Figures' Review

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

The double meaning in the title Hidden Figures is fairly self evident, in both mathematical and human terms. Finding the exact kind of math to launch and bring back a man from orbiting the Earth took a long time in 1961-62, but certainly not as long as it took to find out about the African-American women at NASA who made it possible. Now over 50 years after America unknowingly celebrated their work, it is time for moviegoers to provide a more complete celebration, for them and for how their story is finally told.

In 1961 at NASA's research center in Langely, the Flight Research Division's top white male scientists and mathematicians struggled to figure out how to get a man into space and bring him back before the Russians could. Yet over in the segregated West Area Computers Unit, female African-American "computers" like Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson performed research and calculations with virtually no recognition. Nonetheless, Katherine was recognized enough to be sent to Flight Research, although various societal and mathematical barriers stood in the way of doing her job. But Katherine's math, Dorothy's work with NASA's brand new IBM computers, and Mary's barrier-breaking efforts to become an engineer paid off to make John Glenn's barrier-breaking launch into space possible in 1962.

It's been a running theme this fall to see movies that shed light on the kind of women, African-Americans and African-American women who were overlooked by society in their time. Fences did so in a fictional way, while Jackie exposed how Jackie Kennedy worked behind closed doors to preserve her husband's legacy after his assassination. But whereas Jackie was already an icon and Fences has been on the stage for about 30 years, Hidden Figures presents African-American women who were almost completely overlooked in history until now, despite paving the way for victory in the space race.

There are certainly a lot of ways to present such a story, many of which can be quite melodramatic. Some warning signs are evident, as a prologue where young Katherine sees shapes pop out of a window while reciting calculations veers into Beautiful Mind territory. Fortunately, that doesn't repeat itself to distract from the impact when older Katherine makes her most important equations. However, having Katherine's difficulty in running a long way to the colored bathroom scored to one of Pharrell Williams' new songs and treated as a comedic running gag at first undercuts its more serious elements, especially compared to the dramatic way the subplot ends.

Yet for the most part, Hidden Figures leans towards restraint rather than over the top sentiment and sermonizing. While things are certainly far from subtle, director Theodore Melfi and his co-writer Allison Schroeder seem to take their cues from the women themselves, or at least the versions of them presented on screen. Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are shown as no nonsense women who let their high skills speak for them, who still speak up themselves when it is most necessary despite the obstacles, who work within the limitations placed on them and still find ways to transcend them, and who do their jobs as effectively as possible without any extra bells and whistles. In that way, having the movie follow that example is the best possible tribute it could have given them.

Such an approach may actually make Hidden Figures seem more sanitized than this story likely was in real life. Despite the various slights against the women and the lack of regard they are shown, the PG rating certainly keeps it all from being too nasty. Katherine's boss in Flight Research suffers more from tunnel vision and a lack of knowledge on certain issues than from prejudice, and although Katherine has a more hostile white co-worker in Jim Parsons' Stafford, part of it may come from regularly being singled out and criticized himself by their boss. Dorothy has her own office nemesis of sorts in Kirsten Dunst's supervisor, yet Dorothy knows she still thinks she's being supportive anyway.

Maybe soft pedaling racist and prejudiced opposition in such stories, at least as much as it can be, is a misleading approach that really shouldn't be encouraged these days. But there are still slings and arrows that do hurt, as Dorothy does the job of a supervisor without actually being recognized as one, Mary's even more cynical and outspoken husband doubts she could ever be allowed to be an engineer, and Katherine is ignored and unseen by her peers at various points even in the latter stages of the movie.

Perhaps by not utterly simmering the movie in racist ugliness, it helps give these more casually dismissive slights and others a greater emotional impact. The relative restraint of the movie and its heroines certainly provides a greater impact when they do speak out and get their moments to prove themselves. However, it also almost makes it seem like Katherine's biggest outburst after one too many long trips to the colored bathroom was lifted from a different movie altogether.

Up to that point, Taraji P. Henson is a long way away from anything resembling her larger than life persona on Empire. It may seem jarring to those who just know her lately as Cookie Lyon, from her conservative wardrobe to her glasses and soft spoken voice. Yet it is multiple personas that Henson juggles and effortlessly shifts between, from the quiet worker at NASA to the lighter, less repressed and more outspoken sides she shares with her friends, children and with love interest Mahershala Ali. And as Katherine garners more responsibility and importance amongst the research team, the subtle and obvious progressions in how Henson carries and presents herself speak more volumes than any speech about math.

If Henson isn't exactly typecast in this kind of role, Octavia Spencer is at home herself in another 1960s era movie about African American women emerging from the shadows. But like Henson, Spencer is far removed from her most brash, bombastic and famous role, only hers is from The Help. And like Henson, when Spencer's Dorothy does get to really speak her mind and show her skills, it speaks just as loudly as any big and brassy one-liner.

Most of those lines in Hidden Figures are saved for Janelle Monáe, which was clear right from the very first trailer. While the singer-songwriter is less well known to movie audiences than Henson and Spencer, despite also appearing in the Oscar frontrunner Moonlight along with Ali this fall, that won't be the case for too much longer. Yet beyond the one liners and a greater initial willingness to speak up, Monáe's Mary is still less radical by comparison to her husband, and somewhat tentative at first to go for something better. When she does, however, she certainly presents the perfect case for herself.

As for Henson, Spencer and Monáe's white co-stars, many other films would likely make them into over the top villains, or white saviors, or make the film more about their enlightenment than anything else. Instead, Melfi and Schroeder keep them in the exact right kind of supporting roles, without tipping them into caricatures as adversaries or as "one of the good ones." Kevin Costner is the biggest beneficiary of this as the Flight Research director, to the point where he even comes close to selling the film's most ridiculous line by far.

This merely adds to the sure fire signs that one could watch Henson, Spencer, Monáe, Costner, Parsons, Dunst and Ali do this all day, even with Melfi and Schroeder's worst lines. But for just over two hours, Hidden Figures comes together with them like a textbook math equation.

The film celebrates the power of brain power on Earth and in space like The Martian did a year ago, only with women at the center, and also like Arrival did only without aliens involved. It gives historical dues to a class of African-Americans who were particularly ignored and dismissed by society decades ago, like Fences does only with a true story and with less theatrical dialogue. And it shows the previously little known ways that a woman shaped a landmark event in the early 60s, like Jackie did only with a much more uplifting and triumphant American milestone at the center.

These not so hidden truths uplift Hidden Figures into orbit, if not quite to the upper most stratosphere. But considering all the math for this exact type of movie and story, having it add into this kind of equation may be the most fitting way to give its human computers their overdue justice.

For that, while this movie really rates a 7.5 in truth, it is bumped up to an 8 on the TMN.com scale.