If there is one criticism to be had about Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, it’s how conventional the storytelling formula is, abiding stringently to the tropes and beats of the genre. But when done in such an affectionate manner, and when telling such an important story, particularly pertinent now as America regresses, to present the narrative in such an accessible way is not necessarily a bad thing, ensuring this tale is told to many, and with impressive box office figures in the States, and a handful of Oscar nominations to boot, it’s proven to have been something of a triumph.
Based on a true story, we meet Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), with a broken down vehicle on the side of the road, having to explain themselves to a police officer – suspicious about the intentions of three African American women stranded in the middle of nowhere. Until they explain they work for NASA, as the brains behind the operation, doing the mathematics in a seperate building, that will eventually help see a man go to space. The police officer offers his apology and escorts them to work – where Katherine is told she is on a new assignment, working for the uncompromising Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), doing the sums in a race against time, as they strive tirelessly to beat the Russians and be the first to achieve the unthinkable.
The widow, and mother of three, is finding her new position challenging, as the very first black woman to set foot in this particular office & the colour of her skin is being held against her, as she is denied access to classified information, having to use a toilet half a mile away, and not even allowed to drink from the same coffee machine as her colleagues. But as they edge ever closer to launch date, it soon becomes apparent that if they want to safely send astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space, her remarkable mind is going to be behind it.
Though at its core Hidden Figures is a character drama, it works as something of a history lesson too, with a fascinating insight into the work NASA did in the 1960s, as we are privy to everything that went on behind the scenes that eventually saw a man in space. Naturally, the piece offers a damning social commentary too, particularly of race relations at the time, with real life footage implemented as we get a real sense for the era, and the context which makes the achievements of these three women even more staggering.
Each of the lead three performances are wonderful, with Henson the pick of the bunch. It’s been quite a year for Monae and also for Mahershala Ali (who plays Katherine’s husband Colonel Jim Johnson), who also shine as key figures in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. You could almost say the same for Spencer (Oscar nominated for this role) but then Bad Santa 2 springs to mind – but we can forgive her that. The soundtrack to this feature is also indelible, and manages to play modern music and get away with it, which is not always easy where period pieces are concerned (though Monae’s track “Isn’t This the World?” feels like it’s been plucked right out of the era depicted).
Regrettably, the aforementioned tropes that this film adheres to so loyally do grow tiresome by the close of play, as you require just a touch more ingenuity, as we find ourselves ticking all the boxes of the archetypal Hollywood drama, with every antagonist character allowed the chance to redeem themselves, despite being dicks throughout, as we find every single loose end frustratingly tied, with certain sequences veering too far away from realism as a result.
And yet there’s a real charm to this piece, and while the paramount emotion is that of anger, as you struggle to comprehend how these immensely talented women were hindered in such an important job, simply because of skin pigmentation. But while anger-inducing, Melfi ensures this film just about remains uplifting and inspiring, without compromising on the severity of the themes being explored – making it perfect Oscar fodder, and rightly so.