The plot involves an important turning point in American racial history that
occurred in segregation-era Virginia, and the shattering of the color barrier among the workers at NASA in
the early 1960s. The time predated the advent of IBM machines to check
the mathematical calculations prepared by male engineers to allow for
space travel, so the work was done by female personnel who were
known as “computers.” They included a battery of black women, among
them three friends who are the focus of the film: Katherine Goble (Taraji P.
Henson), shown in a prologue as a gifted math prodigy; Dorothy Vaughan
(Olivia Spencer), who has been doing the work of group supervisor though
she’s not been granted the title (or salary); and Mary Jackson (Janelle
Monae), the most overtly rebellious of the trio.
The narrative concentrates on how each of them shows exceptional
talent that ultimately creates a crack in the accepted barriers to
advancement by women in general, but black women in particular. Vaughan,
recognizing the threat to the livelihood of all the “computers” that
comes with the arrival of the first IBM mainframe, surreptitiously
masters the operation of the machine, making herself indispensable in
its use (and able to help her compatriots). Jackson, assigned to the
staff designing the prototype of the Mercury space capsule, is
encouraged by her boss (Olek Krupa) to apply to a program to train
engineers, and so successfully challenges the segregationist exclusion
of blacks from the college classes that are prerequisites for it.
While their efforts bring them up against obtuse white bosses who
cannot recognize their talents, such as personnel director Vivian
Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), the emphasis is nevertheless on Katherine, who
is transferred to the Space Task Group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin
Costner), which has come under increasing pressure to succeed as Soviet
triumphs in the field accumulate and American efforts remain stymied.
There she encounters the same sort of resistance as Dorothy and Mary,
not only from the team’s secretary (Kimberly Quinn) but from chief
engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who’s obviously envious of her
computational skill and her innovative approaches to problems. Despite
being overwhelmed by the demands on him Harrison, on the other hand, is
fairly quick to recognize her extraordinary ability and to take
advantage of it. Another who will do so is astronaut John Glenn,
portrayed with fresh-faced exuberance by Glen Powell, who in the end
prefers her calculations to those spat out by the IBM.
The individual workplace triumphs of each of the three women are
portrayed with a degree of manipulation that practically compels the
audience to cheer them on. The heroines have to face doubts even outside the NASA compound.
Mary’s husband (Aldis Hodge) cautions her about striving for impossible
dreams, and Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a smooth military officer, makes
the mistake of underestimating Katherine’s steely determination at their
first meeting. Both men, however, come to recognize how exceptional
the women are, just as their white bosses do.
Hidden Figures—an overly cute title, tells a genuinely compelling story, but does so
in a fashion that too often feels artificial, even borderline sitcomish.
The synthetic quality extends to the period details of the physical
production, which looks way too slickly spic-and-span. (There is,
however, a nice visual joke in the identical outfits—white shirts with
black trousers, ties and shoes—worn by all the engineers in Harrison’s
unit.) The almost impeccable character of the settings is accentuated
by the bright, glistening cinematography.
And yet it’s hard to resist the charm of the three lead actresses,
who milk even the sappiest moments for all they’re worth. Although its celebration of these remarkable women is certainly apt,
Hidden Figures unfortunately goes overboard trying to become an