“Hidden Figures,” which is based on a true story, is intended to be a celebration of the contribution of African-American women to the United States space program, but director Theodore Melfi’s film goes beyond that. By telling us a story of the inner workings behind the scenes of NASA’s early 1960s space race, we learn about a largely unknown venue of the civil rights movement, but we also gain a general appreciation for the Herculean task of getting the Mercury astronauts into space at all.
We first meet Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a brilliant mathematician working for NASA in a segregated department labeled “colored computers.” The first term tells you about racial division, but the second tells you that what we are watching takes place long before the days of Steve Jobs and Apple computers. Katherine and her co-workers are literally considered “computers,” skilled number crunchers who are providing the ground-level calculations that will eventually take the astronauts into orbit.
Their work has never been so vital. “Hidden Figures” is focused on that narrow window of time after Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin have put U.S. efforts into panic mode, but before Alan Shepard and John Glenn forged the American path into space. The head of the U.S. space task force, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), is desperate for a breakthrough. When Katherine is promoted to his department as an expert in analytical geometry, the pieces are set in motion for her peers back in the computer room to realize their true potential.
One friend, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), gets involved with doing wind tunnel tests on the space capsule, and winds up setting her sights on a previously unavailable engineering degree. When brand new IBM computers start showing up and threatening the human computers’ jobs (even though they can’t fit the cumbersome machines through the doors), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) takes the initiative to learn the IBM programming language in order to preserve her relevance to the program.
Most of the time, however, is focused on Katherine, a single mother who is trying to balance a crushing job against her responsibilities at home, while simultaneously managing the blossoming affections of a colonel named Jim (Mahershala Ali). Her job would be tough enough as is, but having to cross the NASA facility every time she wants to use the colored bathroom a half-mile away puts her plight in stark relief.
Melfi presents this and other frustrations in a light that is both comic and sensitive, bringing the story to life in a meaningful and resonant way. “Hidden Figures” is a fun uphill ride, and its protagonists are easy to cheer for. The film’s only real weakness is a tendency to drive its points home with a piece of dialogue or a speech when the message is already coming across clearly. At times, the script chooses to twist the knife rather than let what’s on the screen speak for itself.
But that’s really the only major criticism for a movie that has a way of celebrating not just the African-American employees who contributed to NASA’s efforts, but all the unsung heroes who are usually little more than background extras in films like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13.” Those films were great tributes to the faces of the space race; “Hidden Figures” is a testament to those who worked so hard behind the scenes to get us across the finish line.
“Hidden Figures” is rated PG for thematic elements and some language; running time: 127 minutes.