It’s kind of sad to write about Hidden Figures so shortly after the death of John Glenn. Now, make no mistake, Hidden Figures isn’t about John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell who, after Everybody Wants Some!! seems to have a real knack for showing up in every movie and being “cool”) as much as John Glenn is the MacGuffin everyone else is trying to send in orbit around the Earth. It’s the people who put him there safely that we focus on in Hidden Figures. And, boy, is it a crowd pleaser. (It’s rare we get a moving story about social justice that also involves spaceships, but, yes, Hidden Figures has both.)
Hidden Figures, based on a true story, begins with a pretty interesting scene. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are stranded on a Virginia highway after their car breaks down. (Well, not really “stranded,” because they know how to fix the car. It’s just not done yet.) A highway patrolman stops alongside them and starts to give them trouble. We think we know where this scene is headed until the officer realizes they all work at NASA, and all of a sudden the officer’s deep hatred for the Russians and Sputnik overshadows his racism. Before we know it, the officer is giving the women a police escort to work, flying down the highway. (This scene reminded me a bit of when Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Warren gained acceptance from Kurt Russell’s John Ruth in The Hateful Eight after showing Ruth a “letter from the president.” In the same way the officer only showed these three African American women some respect when he found out they worked for NASA.)
The film follows Katherine (who is a mathematical savant), Dorothy (a very capable middle manager deserving of a promotion and serious recognition) and Mary (a mathematician who wants to be an engineer) who all find a way to excel, despite the whole system trying to do its best to hold them all back. It’s weird, we kind of think of NASA as this shining jewel of good, yet it was just as segregated as anywhere else in Virginia in the early 1960s.
The easiest way to describe Katherine would be as a real Will Hunting. (Or, better, Will Hunting was a fictional Katherine Johnson.) She sees things in mathematics that other people can’t. When we first meet Katherine, she’s toiling away in a department where her talents are being wasted on a job that’s well beneath her skill set. Her work grabs the attention of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the director of the Space Task Group, who requests her to be assigned to his group – a group that is almost all male and most definitely white. (So white, they had to add a segregated coffee pot, which is awful and depressing.)
Jim Parsons plays Paul Stafford, a new colleague of Katherine’s who is, well, kind of a dick. And what I do appreciate about Parsons’ performance here is that there’s no epiphany. He realizes Katherine is better than he is and still tries to hold on to the glory. He’s a dick from the beginning until the end. I think a lesser film might have made him into a “nice guy” by the end, but that doesn’t happen here.
Costner is kind of perfect in the role of Harrison. What’s interesting is he’s certainly not a jerk, or any kind of a racist – he’s just looking for results that will safely send people into space and he doesn’t care where they come from. But what’s interesting is he’s also clueless about what Katherine has to go through compared to the rest of his staff. He doesn’t realize she is forced to drink coffee from a different pot. He doesn’t realize that Katherine has to use a bathroom on the other side of the campus, as opposed to the one just down the hall. Harrison represents the white guy in power who thinks that everyone who reports to him is all starting out on equal footing.
But the stars here are obviously Henson, Spencer, and Monáe. It’s mostly Henson’s film, but everyone here is outstanding and has a moment that will make audiences applaud. Oh, yes, there will be a lot of applauding during this film.
Anyway, regardless, I want to make it clear this is an uplifting movie. After watching, I felt uplifted. It made me happy. It will probably make you happy. It’s the kind of movie that knows there will be moments in the film when people start applauding. That can be annoying, but not here. I welcomed it. It’s nice to be able to cheer for something right now.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.