A film that isn't cinematically adventurous can still surprise and satisfy us, if the story it tells is rare enough on screen. Stylistically, Hidden Figures is Inspirational Biopic 101. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) brings everything we expect to this story of three African American women working at NASA in the early 1960s. There are stirring montages incorporating vintage news footage, Oscar-clip speeches where everything grinds to a halt so a star can show her chops, and power walks scored to soaring choruses.
And yet, none of these clichés suffices to make the story of three pioneering math nerds less inherently interesting. It's a story most of us don't know about the birth of the space program — and, with three ferociously talented actors bringing the "hidden figures" to life, it's one we won't soon forget.
During World War II, NASA's precursor had begun recruiting black women to be "computers," or employees who performed mathematical calculations by hand. Later, such calculations became key to winning the space race, and the film profiles three real women who made notable contributions during those years.
Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Goble (later Johnson), a prodigy with expertise in analytic geometry. She's plucked from the computer pool to assist composite character Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) in getting a man into orbit. Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, who had to fight educational segregation to become NASA's first female African American engineer. And Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan, who oversaw the computer pool as the organization's first black supervisor.
Plenty of poetic license has been taken: The three women's signature achievements weren't actually contemporaneous, as they're depicted here. But the trio's banter and bickering are great fun, reminiscent of the comic byplay in 9 to 5. Here, the foe is not a bad boss per se, but subtle discrimination and not-so-subtle segregation, the latter of which forces Katherine to trek across the NASA campus every time she needs a restroom.
In a splashy but solid performance, Henson shows us how carefully Katherine strives to blend in. She shrinks into herself at work, presenting an unthreatening exterior, but there's nothing mousy about her when she's scolding her three kids or flirting with a new suitor (Mahershala Ali of Moonlight). Gradually the math whiz gains the confidence to stand out — and deliver those impassioned Oscar speeches to a roomful of taken-aback white men in suits and ties.
The film cheats a little by casting Costner as Katherine's supervisor. We're conditioned to see this actor as a foe of injustice, so there's no real suspense about whether Harrison will (after a little prodding) make sure his employee gets the credit and privileges her work deserves.
More interesting and open-ended are the interactions between Spencer's Dorothy and her immediate superior (Kirsten Dunst), who rebuffs her requests to be named supervisor with a bland, company-woman shrug. In the film's most insightful scene, Dunst's character is moved to assure Dorothy that her resistance isn't personal: "I don't have anything against y'all." Dorothy's response is civil but firm: "I know you believe that." It's a clever echo of modern discussions about how hard it is for well-meaning white people to acknowledge the benefits they've drawn from institutional racism.
The screenplay (by Melfi and Allison Schroeder) leans hard on a central metaphor: Even as they helped the astronauts venture into space, these women were undertaking their own, far less heralded foray into inhospitable territory. Perhaps what's most shocking about their story is that it's still not familiar. With any luck, Hidden Figures will bring viewers to the nonfiction account by Margot Lee Shetterly on which it's based — and serve as an inspiration for STEM-minded kids who rarely see parallels to themselves on film.