Cinema is good at this. At finding little known stories, and shining a beacon of light on them. In the case of Hidden Figures, arriving in UK cinemas off the back of Oscar nominations and a $100m+ gross at the US box office, author Margot Lee Shetterly got there first; it’s her best seller that’s the basis of this excellent film. The movie adaptation does it proud.
The story here focuses on the space race in the early 1960s, specifically the moment where it looked as if Russia had firmly seized the initiative. As NASA was struggling to get an American into space, Russia was having far more success, and the pressure was duly on.
That pressure in part fell on the shoulders of Al Harrison (played here by Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, charged with coming up with and solving the calculations needed to send John Glenn safely into space. But in 1961, it was a segregated NASA, and thus young black woman Katherine Johnson, played here wonderfully by Taraji P Henson, is – along with Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) – working away outside of the glare of Harrison. That changes, though, when Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell assigns Johnson to the Space Task Group, where she’s initially viewed with suspicion by her colleagues.
Soon, there are two narratives going on. There’s the challenge that Johnson and her colleagues face as human computers, trying to crack the sums that NASA needs to accelerate its space programme. And then there’s the ongoing discrimination, both racial and gender-based, that the core trio of the film face. Both are of real interest.
Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi skilfully weave these threads together, and they take great care both to humanise the story, and tell it in a compelling way. They both seem aware that this is an intriguing story that’s passed the vast majority of people by, and thus their efforts to contextualise matters are welcome.
What I really liked about Hidden Figures is how broadly it plays things. That there seems to have been a decision very early on to try and get this story to as many people as possible. That comes with consequences, certainly. There are a few moments in the film, for instance, where it heavily pushes its message about breaking down discrimination at NASA, right down to Costner’s Al Harrison knocking down a toilet sign. But then I chewed on that. Part of trying to get this film, and this story, out into a mass market is the occasional need to double-bag its message. To get it across to sectors of the audience who may, at first, be a little resistant to it. It’s a small price that the movie pays for this, and I think it’s one worth paying.
For Hidden Figures is a film with quality to spare. Henson, Monae and Spencer are excellent, their performances fuelling characters that I was actively rooting for. Furthermore, Kevin Costner gets just the kind of supporting role that he can’t help but lend gravitas to. It’s the third terrific film for him set in and around this era of American history, and it’s a credit to Hidden Figures that it can stand in the company of both JFK and the superb Thirteen Days (although it’s arguably just a small step below them both). Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons perhaps get a little sold short, but this is still a quality ensemble piece.
Hidden Figures is a triumph. It’s both an important film, and an entertaining one, and I’m glad it exists. Boasting a terrific soundtrack, it’s apparently the highest grossing film of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. And whilst it may not be the best of them, I’d comfortably say that the filmmakers have easily accomplished what they set out to do. Bravo to them.
Hidden Figures is in UK cinemas now.