Hidden Figures ✮✮1/2
The Computers Wore High Heels
by Glenn Lovell
As Neil Armstrong might have put it, this popular new release documents one small (but crucial) step for race relations in JFK’s America, one giant leap (PR coup) for an initially insensitive NASA.
Drawn from Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction account of the incremental behind-the-scenes integration of the space program, “Hidden Figures” proves a well-intentioned but predictable celebration of the sacrifice and can-do spirit of three African-American women mathematicians, objectified as human “computers,” at a Virginia research center in the early 1960s. It’s not a great or important film, but it does leave the viewer in an up mood, which, given the events of the day, is no small achievement.
For a tougher, less Disneyfied take on what it meant/means to be black in this country, you’ll have to turn to the far less glossy “Fences,” “O.J.: Made in America,” and “Moonlight.”
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe play three real-life pool mathematicians named, respectively, Katharine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. The serious, spectacled Johnson, a widowed mother of three, is the brainiest of the three. A math whiz from an early age, she plots rocket trajectories in her head and, in no time, is assigned to the team of engineers that will come from behind — Russia already has Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight to its credit — to launch John Glenn into space in 1962.
Though a romance with a handsome colonel (the seemingly everywhere Mahershala Ali) has been added to the mix, presumably to further humanize Johnson, the real focus of this story is Johnson’s battle for recognition in a sexist/racist environment overseen by a brigade of crew cuts in seersucker suits.
That Johnson perseveres should come as no surprise, after all this is a PG-rated Hollywood movie; but that she is shown to be almost solely responsible for the success of Kennedy’s fast-tracked space program and during a climactic reentry virtually takes over Mission Control as everyone else looks on imploringly may be overdoing things in the name of redressing past sins. (The subtitle of Setterly’s book: “The Inside Story of the Black Women Mathematicisns Who Helped Win the Space Race.”)
Monáe’s Mary Jackson is the wilder, more forthright member of the trio, and Spencer’s Vaughan demonstrates a healthy sense of indignation when told she can supervise her segregated pool of number crunchers but without the title and pay grade of supervisor.
Kevin Costner, fast becoming Hollywood’s favorite bleeding-heart apologist (see “Black or White,” “McFarland, USA”), plays Al Harrison, a fictitious composite of three harried NASA directors. Harrison comes off like other Costner characters — concerned but essentially clueless. The big feel-good moment hinges on Harrison being somehow unaware that Johnson has to run half a mile across campus for the “colored” toilet. He’s equally obtuse when it comes to who’s allowed to drink from the office coffee pot.
Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons appear in the thankless roles of racist supervisors. Dunst plays a smug, self-deceiving department manager, and Parsons, on leave from “Big Bang Theory,” is Johnson’s insecure boss, who per protocol takes credit for Johnson’s out-of-the-box computations. In danger of being typed after too many seasons on a hit sitcom, Parsons, sans coy smile and laughtrack, is still the nerdy Sheldon.
Glen Powell’s near-beatific John Glenn is even more of an anachronism. When he stops by every now and then to check on the eggheads’ progress, he’s caught in beaming closeups meant to impart an All-American fairness that separates him from the backward-thinking rubes in the room.
As entertaining and inspirational as “Hidden Figures” is, it strikes me as more than a little contrived, clever, like its double-entendre title. It doesn’t help that it arrives in the wake of a string of incendiary race-relations documentaries and dramas. Maybe this is why it feels sanctimonious and pat, like a more socially aware cousin to Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.”
HIDDEN FIGURES ✮✮1/2 With Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali. Directed by Theodore Melfi; scripted by Allison Schroeder, Melfi. 127 min. PG (slightly intense moments, but OK for family viewing)