HIDDEN FIGURES: Soaring into the history books
by Lew Ritter
CAUTION: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
In the late 1950‘s, America and Russia (then the U.S.S.R) were locked in a space race. Each nation was determined to place the first man into orbit around the Earth and eventually land a man on the moon. It culminated with Neil Armstrong being the first American to land on the Moon in 1969.
Prior to HIDDEN FIGURES, movies depicting the Space Race, such as THE RIGHT STUFF and APOLLO 13, focused on the exploits of the white astronauts, who were the pioneers of the space race. HIDDEN FIGURES is a historical drama about three hitherto unknown participants in the American space program. Most remarkable is that these unsung heroes were three African American women. Their contribution to the American space program went overlooked for half a century.
In the early 1960’s, the Civil Rights movement was still in its infancy. The African American women who worked for NASA were employed in a supporting role called “Computers.” It was essentially a data entry role, as the giant IBM mainframe computers were still in their infancy
The three women featured in the story are Katherine Goble (Tariji Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Each of the women were ambitious and desired to advance in the program, but were denied advancement based on their skin color.
Mary Jackson ( Monae) was denied entrance into the engineering program. She was offered the excuse that she lacks the necessary credentials to qualify to be an engineer. Undaunted, she launches a lawsuit that would allow her to take the necessary night classes at the hitherto segregated high school in Norfolk. The judge resolved the lawsuit in Mary’s favor and she goes onto become an engineer..
Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) is denied the role of supervisor by the testy Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Undaunted, she borrows a book on FORTRAN, an ancient coding program for computers that used punch cards. Soon, she becomes the most capable Fortran programmer on the huge new mainframe IBM mainframe computer. She becomes the first African -American supervisor in NASA.
Katherine Gobel (Henson) moved from being an accessory “computer” into a vital member of the engineering team. Her ability to calculate precise coordinates and elliptical orbits astonished her white compatriots.
Act Three depicts the events of the John Glenn’s flight in the “Friendship Seven.” After orbiting the Earth several times, the heat shield begins to fail. The capsule heads for reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. For a few dreaded moments, Glenn’s capsule disappears from the radar and they lose contact with the capsule.
The control room fears that the capsule burnt up upon reentry into orbit. Everyone holds their breath, fearing the worst. After agonizing minutes, Glenn’s voice booms over the radio and his capsule splashed down safely in the ocean.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Henson and Costner are the standouts. However, all of the other actors deliver terrific performances and deserve Oscars for their roles. The dialogue and action is an accurate depiction of the 1960’s. The space mission scenes are a mix of live action mixed with documentary footage featuring such real people as Jules Bergman, the ABC News Science correspondent.
The most entertaining bit of type casting was Jim Parsons (BIG BANG THEORY). He is perfectly cast as the stiff necked scientist, who views Katherine as not his rival, or even part of the same team. He refused to add her name to any of the research reports or let her attend the all – male staff briefings.
Kevin Costner is solid as Al Harrison, the head of the project. He seems more obsessed with the success of his mission than the skin color of his employees. At the beginning of the movie, the women are told not to speak to him. He is either too aloof or busy with the space program.
Slowly, he begins to notice that Katherine, his “computer” works faster than most of her co- workers and has a knack for utilizing the complex Analytic Geometry formulas needed to calculate accurate re-entry coordinates. By the end, he becomes dependent on Katherine’s abilities to project changes in trajectory and safe landings.
The best scene in the movie is when Harrison grows annoyed that Katherine seems to disappear for several times during the day. Outraged, she confesses that she is forced to run half a mile to the segregated ladies room across the campus. Harrison strides into the far-away building and takes a sledge hammer to the sign “Colored Ladies Room.” He has the best line of the movie. ”From now on, he intones, everyone in NASA pees the same color.”
The screenplay is well structured. All of the women get a large chunk of screen time to have their professional and personal stories told. Theodore Melfi has established himself as a major director following his admirable work on last year’s poignant movie ST. VINCENT starring Bill Murray.
I certainly haven’t found anything “bad” here!
The movie was released in January, when studios traditionally dump movies they lack confidence in to recoup their investment. HIDDEN FIGURES has emerged as a surprise hit. Unheralded, it has dominated the box office during it’s first weeks in theaters. The movie has become a crowd pleasuring sentimental hit with audiences clapping loudly at the final credits. It will go onto become an Oscar favorite and perhaps a classic of it’s genre in the future.
Lew Ritter is a teacher, freelance writer, and TVWriter™ Contributing Writer. Learn more about him here.