Hidden Figures, based on the recent book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the true story of three pioneering African-American women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. These three remarkable women worked for NASA in the 1960’s and beyond. Katherine Johnson calculated the launch windows and trajectories for many of the flights for Project Mercury, including Alan Shephard’s first American manned spaceflight in 1961 and John Glenn’s first American orbit of the Earth in 1962. She was later involved in the moon landings. Dorothy Vaughan was the first African-American woman to be promoted to being a head of personnel at NASA, and she became a leader in computer programming, mastering the FORTRAN coding language of the early electronic computers at NASA. Mary Jackson became NASA’s first African-American woman engineer, winning a court case in order to be allowed to take classes at a whites-only school that were necessary in order for her to qualify for that engineer position.
The film Hidden Figures tells the story of the friendship between these three African-American women, and chronicles the years between 1957-1962 in which they, and other African-American women, played key roles in the groundbreaking work being done at NASA that resulted in Alan Shephard and Scott Glenn’s historic flights in 1961-62, and eventually in the United States’ winning the race to land on the moon.
This is an incredible story, and a very important one that has been mostly ignored by the many historical accounts of the space race in the sixties. I’m delighted that Ms. Shetterly’s book, and now this film directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Allison Schroeder and Mr. Melfi, is telling this story.
The power of this true story carries the film, and makes Hidden Figures an enjoyable film even though I often felt the incredible true story was let down by the filmmaking choices.
I saw Hidden Figures soon after seeing Manchester by the Sea, a film that was striking in its naturalism — that film felt so viscerally real, with fully-fleshed-out characters and dialogue that felt honest and realistic to how people really talk and behave. Hidden Figures, by contrast, felt to me to be full of scenes that felt declarative and fake, scenes whose purpose was to make a point or to ensure the audience understood something, rather than reflecting the way anyone actually would talk or act. Take an early scene with Mary, in which we see her with a group of engineers testing a capsule in a wind-tunnel. Mary’s supervisor encourages her to become an engineer, and Mary responds with a very blunt statement, saying something like: “I’m a Negro woman, no one will let me become an engineer,” thus laying out in a very plain and obvious way for the audience the challenge this character would be facing in this film. Or how about the very Hollywood, Oscar-clip moment in which Katherine, soaking wet and in tears, finally explodes at the director of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), in front of all of her co-workers, speechifying about all the hardships that have been put upon her as an African-American woman. I can’t believe this scene actually happened, it feels to me like a fake Hollywood moment. (And, indeed, some reading about the film reveals not only that Al Harrison was a made-up composite character, but also that the film’s portrayal of Katherine’s having to walk across the entire NASA campus just to use a “colored” bathroom was not in fact true.)
I understand that these sorts of historical biopic films sometimes need to fudge some things, and/or conflate characters for dramatic effect and to work successfully as a movie. But Hidden Figures feels to me to be far too filled with this sort of thing. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) are ALL made-up, composite characters. I’m not a big fan of altering the true story when the true story is so powerful all on its own!! And if you are going to make some historical alterations, you need to do a better job to make those changes feel more natural. (I adore The Right Stuff, a film that covers a lot of similar territory as Hidden Figures and that also has made changes to historical fact for dramatic effect. But I would argue that those changes are better executed in The Right Stuff, a far stronger film in my opinion.)
(I’ve also been struggling with why the deviations from historical fact bothered me so much more in Hidden Figures than in Jackie, a film I just reviewed this past Wednesday. I would draw two main distinctions. First, Jackie is designed to be a very intimate look inside the heart of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, a woman who has a mystique of being somewhat unknowable to the public. In so doing, I think the film makes clear to audiences that there is some speculation involved in what is depicted on-screen, that the film is not meant to be seen as 100% accurate historical FACT. Second, the inaccuracies in Hidden Figures stick out to me like a sore thumb because of the wooden dialogue and implausible staging. In Jackie, much of what we see feels real, or at least plausible, whereas that wasn’t the case for me for many scenes in Hidden Figures. Others might disagree.)
I feel bad criticizing Hidden Figures too much. Despite some changes to historical fact, the film remains a hugely important story and an entertaining film. The film is anchored by three wonderful performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe in the lead roles. All three women are wonderful, with Ms. Spencer being particularly impressive to me (and, to me, the most naturalistic of the three). I love the film’s focus on the friendship between these three women, allowing us to spend time with them in their lives and homes, not just at work at NASA.
Kevin Costner is terrific as Katherine’s supervisor in the Space Task Group, a tough but loyal and fair-minded leader. Jim Parsons is really only given one note to play as the prickly, condescending Paul Stafford, but he plays that one note very well. Mahershala Ali, who was all over the place in an amazing 2016 (terrific in Luke Cage and apparently also spectacular in Moonlight, a film I desperately hope to see soon), is great in a small role as Jim Johnson, a dashing young military man wooing the widowed Katherine. Kirsten Dunst is also really given just one note to play as the woman giving out assignments to Dorothy, but she’s also solid in the role.
I love stories about NASA, and Hidden Figures is a wonderful addition to a well-mined piece of history. This is an important film, one that emphasizes the values of science and intelligence, and the idea that when human beings work together there is nothing we cannot accomplish. (For my whole life I have been floored by the achievements of NASA in the fifties and sixties, that explosion of innovation and new ideas that allowed us to achieve the impossible: putting men on the moon and bringing them back home safely to Earth.) Even more importantly, Hidden Figures tells a powerful true story of Civil Rights, of the incredible contributions made by African-American women, and of the struggles they faced against discrimination and prejudice and ignorance. Hidden Figures reminds us both of how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.