Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician working in a minor segregated computer department at NASA alongside Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) who runs that department but hasn’t the job title or pay of a supervisor, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) an outspoken and ambitious engineer. When the Space Team director (Kevin Costner) calls upon Katherine to work on the numbers for the plan to launch a man into space, she and her friends do all they can to prove they can contribute to the mission just as well as any of the white men working on it.
This is an incredibly typical story, playing out exactly as any other story about people overcoming racial discrimination would. It’s not a very well-written movie either and a subplot about Katherine’s romance with a military man Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) seems added just to fill the runtime and has little relevance on the NASA plot. The three heroines are expectedly facing an upwards climb throughout the whole movie and have to fight the powers that believe the colour of their skin and to a lesser extent, their gender, prevents them from contributing meaningfully to the launch. What does work however is the situation.
The space race was an interesting point in American history, due to how vast amounts science and innovation were put into a project not so much about exploring and learning as about beating the evil Russians. And so the story set against this backdrop is an interesting one, and as such the characters are similarly interesting, likeable, and worth following.
I like when a movie really makes me believe in the characters and Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine’s mathematical brilliance and subdued frustration very well. Yeah, there’s a point where she does the Will Hunting thing of proving her genius by writing a complex formula on a blackboard, but her intelligence seems believable enough. Janelle Monae’s Mary is a lot of fun, at times feeling like she’s a black woman from the modern era transplanted in the 60’s due to her candid attitude about discrimination and perseverance in improving herself to NASA qualifications even if she doesn’t need them. Octavia Spencer as Dorothy is perhaps the most enjoyable of the trio, a fun and funny character who feels a little left out that her two friends are making strides where she is not. And the chemistry between these ladies is very good, ensuring the film doesn’t ever become too monotonous. The rest of the cast aren’t quite as impressive. Ali is fine, but after the performance he gave in Moonlight I was expecting so much more out of what’s here a pretty bland character. Kevin Costner is decent as the guy giving Katherine a chance and even standing up for her from time to time. But he’s surrounded by the typical racist jerks you encounter in these kind of movies played by Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons (essentially just playing the same one-note role as on The Big Bang Theory). Glen Powell is playing up the charm as John Glenn, though I have to wonder if he really was as open-minded as the film makes him just because he was a national hero. The bigots in this movie are characters not likely based on specific people.
For the generic racial discrimination scenes we get like Dorothy riding with her kids at the back of the bus after being kicked out of the library for reading in the white section, there are a couple sequences that work. Most notable is a (literal) running gag that turns into something serious about how Katherine has to run a half-hour to another building to use the only coloured bathroom in the facility. These brief sequences, the Pharrell Williams song that accompanies them, and their ultimate culmination are actually very impactful.
Hidden Figures though not executed in any way uniquely for this kind of film is an important story. It’s one of those stories I do feel better for now knowing. The movie’s not great by any means but it’s saved by this legitimately interesting story and likeable characters. At the end I wanted to know a little more about what these women accomplished, especially with regards to the even bigger mission later that decade, landing a man on the moon. And when a film compels you to do some added research yourself, that’s a sign it did something right.