Movie Review – Hidden Figures
Katherine Goble Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 24, 2015. She worked for NASA and was crucial in Project Mercury and the February 20, 1962 mission of Friendship 7, which had the goal of putting a man in orbit of the Earth and return safely. Johnson was a physicist and a mathematician who was responsible for checking the calculations to navigate the spaceship off the ground and back. This film follows the year leading up to that launch. Directed and co-written by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) and co-written by Allison Schroeder, the film feels like a prequel to Apollo 13 (1995). It’s a docudrama that incorporates real film footage from the 60’s to tell a story about spaceflight that’s about the intellectual side of things and working through intellectual problems intellectually. What makes this story a bit different is the fact that Johnson was a woman and she was African-American, so Johnson has to do all the incredible work she had to do, while battling against sexism and racism.
Taraji P. Henson who is an Oscar-nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and an Emmy-nominee for Empire (2015) stars as Katherine Goble who was discovered to be a math genius when she was in the 6th grade. She was born in West Virginia in 1918. She went to graduate school in West Virginia, but she moved to Hampton, Virginia, in the 1950’s to work for NASA. She worked with fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help), and aspiring engineer Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe (Moonlight). Katherine is a widow with three daughters. She has to commute to work to the Langley Research Center with Dorothy and Mary. Katherine’s mother stays at home to help raise the daughters.
Kevin Costner (JFK and Dances With Wolves) co-stars as Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group. Al is in charge of Project Mercury. He needs Katherine not only because she’s good at math but also because she’s good at analytical geometry. Her immediate boss is Paul Stafford, played by Emmy-winner Jim Parsons. Paul is the lead engineer who is a bit bothered with Katherine’s presence, especially since she’s just as good if not better than him at math. He doesn’t seem to have as big a problem with her race as he does her gender. Al, however, is the overriding force that neither cares about race and gender. Al is more about completing the mission and anyone who can help him do that, he’ll accept.
In completing the mission and focusing on math or intellectual work, the film definitely has echoes of A Beautiful Mind (2001) and The Imitation Game (2014). Those movies are more of a character study than this film. This film is more an ensemble, even though Katherine’s efforts are the heaviest bits. It’s more about her trying to prove her worth and the worth of all women of color to do the work, shattering stereotypes that women of color can have advanced minds, smarter than all their counterparts.
Yet, the prequel to Apollo 13 is probably most apt as the latter third of this movie feels so much like that Ron Howard masterpiece. Glen Powell (The Expendables 3 and Everybody Wants Some!!) has the Tom Hanks-like role of John Glenn, the man who would pilot Friendship 7. Costner has the Ed Harris role and Henson has the Bill Paxton role if Paxton was more the lead of that movie. That latter third is just as intense and thrilling, maybe not as dramatic, if one recalls the results from real-life history. Melfi does his best with ramping up the excitement with his constant sequences of Henson running back and forth across the half-mile long, NASA campus.
Nothing is ever too over-the-top. Tensions do come to a boil with Henson who has the showier role here. They only simmer nicely with Octavia Spencer (pictured above) who bumps heads with Kirsten Dunst (Interview with the Vampire and Spider-Man). Of all the actors in the cast, Spencer is the one getting the most attention. For this role alone, she’s nominated for the Golden Globe, the SAG Award, the NAACP Image Award, the Online Film Critics Award and the Satellite Awards. These nominations are deserved as Spencer’s storyline, Dorothy’s struggle to learn the new IBM 7090 and to get a managerial position in NASA, as the first African-American to do so is a powerful story.
With all this attention, especially from SAG or the Screen Actors Guild, the likelihood Spencer will got an Oscar nomination is strong. Because the film also got a SAG nomination for Outstanding Performance By a Cast, the movie’s chances for getting a Best Picture nod at the 89th Academy Awards are also very strong.
Included in the cast is Mahershala Ali who plays Jim Johnson, a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Navy who meets and falls in love with Katherine. Eventually, he marries her. If you don’t know Mahershala Ali, this year is the year to learn his name. From appearing on two TV series this year on Netflix to his much recognized performance in Moonlight, which might also earn him an Oscar nod, his added presence is warm and enchanting, as he proves he could definitely be a romantic lead in this and any film.
The soundtrack with a score and songs provided mostly by Pharrell Williams is pretty terrific as well.
Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 7 mins.