It’s always a double edged sword after you’ve seen a movie “based on real-life events” to go and track down how much is really “true.” Of course, it can be pleasantly surprising, such as discovering that Andrew Garfield’s character’s counterpart in “Hacksaw Ridge,” was actually braver off-screen. Or disappointing when you realize the truth is much tamer, such as the fact that the American POW in “Bridge of Spies,” allegedly spent his time in enemy prison knitting, not being waterboarded. In the case of “Hidden Figures,” I don’t know which of the secondary characters are composites, but the three main ones: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are all based on real-life African-American math whizzes who played key roles in the NASA space race against the Russians.
Indeed we get clued into that from the start when a state trooper investigates what appears to be a disturbing sight: three middle-aged, nicely-dressed women attempting to get their car re-started by the side of the road. After they provide identification which he regards in clear disbelief, he stares at the sky for awhile although it’s a nice day. “The Russians are watching us,” he intones. Luckily, he provides an escort so they can make it to NASA on time, a surreal experience far preferable to taking public transportation. If only the rest of the obstacles in their work were as easy to overcome.
Though they have all gone as far as they can education-wise, the trio are dealing with some brick walls, or perhaps glass ceilings career-wise. As as one puts it, “Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line.” Octavia longs to move into the position officially entitled “Supervisor” of the floating African-American office pool, whose work she is already doing sans title, no thanks to the hard-assery of her white superior (Kirsten Dunst). When she learns that NASA is prepping for a miracle machine called an IBM (that will make jobs obsolete), she promptly does the research into FORTRAN cards and begins to master the technology on her own. Janelle wants to become NASA’s first woman engineer, butt that requires that she take classes at an all-white high school – something that will require going to court and delivering a passionate speech to a judge. Luckily, like most movie characters, Janelle possesses the gift of being eloquent under pressure.
As for Taraji, she gets a chance to work in the department that’s calculating the landings for the upcoming flight of John Glenn’s (Glenn Powell) Friendship 7. However, she must scale a number of “firsts,” including being the first black woman to do complex calculations for a department full of tight-lipped men in suits, headed by gruff (but not really that hard-hearted) Kevin Costner. Not to mention that the segregated bathroom is forty minutes away. Eventually, the last is rectified by Kevin who takes a hammer to the sign of the main building’s women’s loo and points out cheesily, “At NASA we all pee the same color.” But the main challenge (other than keeping her self-respect in an office full of side-eye) for Taraji will be to come up with formulas from what Kevin believes is math not invented yet. (Try to top that!) As it turns out, the answer is found elsewhere, but the goal- catching up to the Russians in the space race – will not be easy.
The film is well-worth seeing, and it’s rated PG, I assume because of some hairy moments during the various launches, or possibly because at one point, one woman ogles a visiting astronaut. Actually, I have no idea, though I hope it’s not because young kids can’t handle learning that America used to be far more segregated. Otherwise, there is no sex or violence, and all the romance is “G.” It’s too bad “Hidden Figures” is out so early in the year because that will likely hamper its chances for Oscar nominations, which several of the actors here deserve.