Hidden Figures: Worthy Subjects, Uneven Direction

Directed by Theodore Melfi
20th Century Fox, 127 minutes, PG (racist themes)

Want to blow your mind? Take out you cell phone and open any app. If it seems slow to load, chill out. No matter how long it takes, it will be 32,600 times speedier than the IBM computers used to send Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969. Yep—that little gadget in your hands has roughly 1,300 times more processing power than NASA had. Back in those days, a “computer” might be an IBM, or it might be a math whiz wielding a protractor. Someone like Katharine Johnson, though probably not—Ms. Johnson is black. But without her, it would have taken NASA longer to catch up the Soviet Union and astronauts would have been sacrificed in the process.

Hidden Figures is a clever title for a film about three unsung black sheroes whose brains supercharged the space program: mathematician/computer Katharine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson), mathematician/supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). After a prologue in which we see Goble as a child math savant, the action shifts to 1961. The Soviets had already beaten the U.S. in the satellite race with its 1957 launch of Sputnik and NASA is again red-faced, as the Ruskies have just sent Yuri Gagarin into space. The heat is on Langley Research Center to respond, but the science simply isn’t there and that includes the IBM, which no one can figure out how to get into the building, let alone use. Space Task Force head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) wants answers and he’s willing to bring talent over from the segregated lab to get them. Enter Katherine Goble.

Henson does a very fine job of displaying the awkwardness, the passive-aggressive racism, and the patronizing attitudes she encounters as the only black person in a literal sea of white—both the faces and the ubiquitous white shirts of serious people in those days. She is forced to coauthor every study with chief engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) even though he’s a racist/sexist jerk and she’s way smarter than he, and to endure the racism-posing-as-maternalism of supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirstin Dunst). Plus, there’s the logistical problem that Langley is in Jim Crow Virginia, so the simple act of using the toilet involves a half-mile round trip jaunt to the segregated facility. Her friends Mary and Dorothy have their own burdens: Mary needs to get into a whites-only school to finish courses to become a full-fledged engineer; Dorothy is supervising an entire unit, but doesn’t bear the title or pay-grade commensurate with her duties.

Some films are claustrophobic and need to get out more; Hidden Figures is hampered by needing to stay closer to home. Because of the way the film is structured, we pretty much know we are watching a triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity tale in which our three figures will do marvelous things. I understand the impulse to flesh out the characters through back stories, but there are marked tonal shifts when we watch Katherine being wooed by Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), Dorothy playing matchmaker, or Mary sitting in a classroom (which didn’t actually happen). There’s a sense that Melfi didn’t trust that the central narrative was strong enough, so he decided to “pad” with Hollywood tricks: romance, witty banter, biographical invention, and a repeated segregation trope that (alas!) becomes more of a “gag.” I could have also done without Hans Zimmer’s score, which is so overbearing that it sounds like he wants to be John Williams when he grows up.

Luckily the story can stand on its merits and the acting is very strong. Henson plays Johnson with a controlled balance of geekiness, kindness, and determination; and Ms. Monáe shows she’s more than a pop star--she portrays Jackson as a simmering ball of fierceness. Dunst dons her Janus face with aplomb, and even Costner is subtle. (Maybe Hollywood has figured out he’s a better character actor than a lead.) Oddly, the weakest link is Spencer—though she’s the one who garnered an Oscar nomination. She’s perfectly competent; it’s just that we’ve seen her do the same things many times: the wry humor, bulldog determination, furtive assertiveness, and that glance that might be bemusement or might be a challenge. Her arched eyebrow expression rivals that of Mr. Spock!

To set the record straight, not all that you see on the screen is literally true. The scenes between John Glenn and Goble/Johnson are greatly exaggerated, and Mary Jackson was not on a temporary assignment with NASA pending completion of her engineering degree—she already had one, was made permanent in 1953, and assumed the title of engineer in 1958. Most egregiously, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to a supervisory role in 1949 and, in 1958, was made part of an integrated NASA unit. And there’s the very odd decision to invent composite characters such as Al Harrison, Paul Stafford, and Vivian Mitchell.

It’s telling that a film dealing with racism is rated PG. Director Melfi is white and my take is that he, like his Vivian Mitchell composite, wanted to do the right thing but couldn’t quite get out of his own way. The film’s Disneyesque triumphalism diminishes the very real achievements of three remarkable women. In the name of overcoming racism, though, Melfi whitewashes it. By all means see Hidden Figures. Everyone should celebrate Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan. Be wary of the hype, though. This film lifts off, but it never quite achieves orbit.
Rob Weir  

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