It’s 1962 and NASA are lagging behind in the space race, their attempts to beat the Russians into space are not going well. It’s down to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) to do everything he can to get the American’s into space and restore some national pride. It just so happens that he might have found the answers to all of his, and NASA’s, problems. That might sound great but it’s 1962 and the three people who might be able to help NASA out are women, and they’re African-American. Racial and sexual tensions ensue.
The timing for the release of Hidden Figures is pretty spot on really, with racism and sexism seemingly on the increase not just in the US but across the globe. In fact, it’s not just racism and sexism that are seemingly on the rise. We’re beginning to see science coming under fire, with the opinions of experts marginalised and funding for science itself being slowly eroded. What better time for an uplifting and inspiring film about the power of inclusivity and the power of science and discovery to unite a nation? Based on the staggering true story of three African-American mathematicians, referred to as ‘computors’ in the film, we get see just what a crucial role these women played in the space race. Although at times it feels more like it should be referred to as space racism.
The film is built on strong central performances, with Kevin Costner doing what he does best as a white-shirted, all American every man. I don’t know what it is but Costner really suits this kind of role, complete with a crew cut, a starched white shirt and a compulsion to chew gum. He also plays a big part as the moral compass of the film as he slowly begins to realise that there is more at stake than simply getting an American into space, and that there are bigger battles to be fought closer to home. Let me make one thing absolutely clear though, as much as I love Kevin Costner he is by no means the star (get it?) of the show. Instead that honour is shared between the central trio of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).
This film has all of the ingredients to be something that is incredibly heavy going and more than a little sombre, and rightly so. However, the director Theodore Melfi takes a slightly different and lighter approach to proceedings. In other hands this could have been a difficult and slightly downbeat drama but instead Melfi opts to do something a little more fun and a little lighter in tone, but I think it really works and in the context of today’s world I think it’s what we really need.
While it’s Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine who gets the bulk of the screen time, and is arguably the central character, I’m not sure she’s actually the most interesting story line. She is undoubtedly an incredibly smart character and is the driving force for a lot of the story but I think her two colleagues, and particularly Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy are potentially more interesting. Katherine is unquestionably smart, and it’s amazing just how interesting the film manages to make someone who is essentially just writing equations on a board and looking at paperwork. But it is definitely made to be engaging, interesting and dare I say exciting? Katherine has to deal with a whole host of office-based sexism and racism as well as having to deal with Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). The problem is that Stafford isn’t a particularly well-realised character and is pretty much just Jim Parsons reprising his role as Sheldon Cooper but with less charm and less humour.
I thought that Dorothy certainly had the most interesting of the three central plots as she is forced to deal Kirsten Dunst’s supervisor Vivian. It’s a really good performance that shows the struggles not just of Dorothy but also underlines the struggle against incoming technology. It’s no surprise that Octavia Spencer is the only one of the cast to be nominated for an acting Oscar for her role in Hidden Figures. I think that she definitely had the most to do and did the most with it.
Hidden Figures is an enjoyable, and incredibly timely film. It felt like exactly what I needed at the moment, a film with a positive message that really highlights what incredible feats humanity can achieve when they pull in the same direction. It’s by no means a perfect film, there are times when things feel a little clichéd and you could almost predict some of the plot beats but it didn’t really matter. There’s no overarching villain and there are no big twists and turns on the horizon but that didn’t really bother me. It’s very much a film that we need right now, and one with an incredibly optimistic and positive message.