Hidden Figures could be the most important film at the Oscars this year, and also the most disappointing if you agree with some critics that its subject matter deserves a better movie. I found it to not only be skillfully put together and entertaining, but to be one of the more inspiring movies of the entire Oscar race.
It tells a story we don’t often get to hear, about three influential geniuses working at NASA in the midst of the 1960’s space race – all of them black women. It is an important lesson in history whilst being rightfully acknowledged for its performers, more or less making up for the supposed racism and sexism of previous Academy Awards seasons, so if there’s some glaring flaw that I’m somehow missing, it really is a shame that it’s affirmative action rather than a genuinely great, “Best Picture”-deserving film. I’m not convinced, though.
As the film begins, NASA is in a state of stress over Russia potentially beating the US to the punch of sending the first human being into space. Space Task Group director Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) is furious that nobody under his wing, even his head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), can do the proper maths. It is at this point that Katherine Goble (portrayed by an Oscar-snubbed Taraji P. Henson), a colored and remarkably gifted computer at the Langley Research Center, is moved to STG by her boss (Kirsten Dunst) to help Harrison’s team.
As you’d imagine, Katherine’s new colleagues initially look at her with disdain and doubt, and she’s forced to run half a mile to find a water closet where people of her skin tone are permitted. But as her knowledge reveals itself more and more, the attitude of her teammates begins to shift, and I don’t think it’d be a major spoiler to point out that an astronaut named John Glenn (played by a very charming Glenn Powell) eventually does reach the stars and is brought back down with equal success. When asked by Harrison if she can take them to the Moon next, Katherine replies “We’re already there”.
Also crucial to the tale are Katherine’s LRC colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer respectively, the former of whom went on to be NASA’s first African-American female engineer and the latter of whom became their first black female supervisor. Mahershala Ali also appears, playing a National Guard commander whom Katherine later marries. It isn’t up there with his performance in Moonlight but I’ll take it.
Hidden Figures is, as charged, corny in many places and a lot of it I can deduce as being made up and overly dramatized without consulting any fact-checkers. Some of the achievements these women made in their lives took place before the years shown in the film and Al Harrison, as I’ve understood it, is a composite character of several NASA leaders.
The film’s greatest triumphs, to me, are the performances given both by leads and supporting actors (Henson mixes confidence with nervousness in a seamless way), the chemistry shared by particularly the three leading ladies (there is never any doubt about these people being long-time friends), the fitting musical choices that bring to mind the era and the African-American culture of the time, and the mesmerizing original score by Hans Zimmer. If we’ve learned anything from The Imitation Game, another true story of a person who pioneered science in spite of being stigmatized, this picture may yet win awards in some areas.
Really, it almost doesn’t matter how good or bad the film is. What matters is that you go see it. It might entertain and it is certain to inspire. It is a still relevant reminder that any person of any gender and skin color can do revolutionary work in the world of science, computing and space exploration. Not all who walk the path shall break down once a guy comes to work wearing the wrong T-shirt one too many times.