Hidden Figures

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Hidden Figures
"Spencer [is] particularly strong in communicating not just fluency but enthusiasm for what she does."

The death of John Glenn in December 2016, at the age of 95, has got many people talking once again about the Mercury Program, America's attempt to get men into space for the first time. Though they lost out to the Russians and Yuri Gagarin (whose story was told in 2014 in parallel film Gagarin - First In Space), the achievements made by the program team were considerable and they made a hero out of Glenn. Less well know, however, were the women without whom none of it could have happened. Though between them they revolutionised the science of orbital dynamics, reshaped a raft of NASA policies and spearheaded the invention of software, it would be decades before their achievements were recognised, and still very few people know their names. This film sets out to change that.

Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle MonĂ¡e), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) faced the double hurdles of being female and African American. Each, however, was possessed of a mathematical talent that really made her stand out, and in the pre-computer age, that's something NASA was desperate to find. Brought on board to function as 'human computers', sitting in the basement checking sheet after sheet of figures, they were part of the industrial machine behind the making of heroes, the low wages they could command making the project easier to finance. But a woman who knows she's extraordinary is hard to keep down, and right from the start of Theodore Melfi's film, we see them celebrating that.

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Bringing in these moments of joy is important because ultimately this is a film about maths, and it's hard to make maths exciting to the uninitiated. To the extent that this is achieved, it is thanks to the passion conveyed by the leads, with Spencer particularly strong in communicating not just fluency but enthusiasm for what she does. Screenwriters Allison Schroeder and Melfi focus on showing us what that maths makes possible, and manage to keep direct exposition to a minimum.

Whilst the three leads are all strong, Kevin Costner also shines in the deftly handled supporting role of the manager whose roots as a Polish Jew give him some insight into what it's like to face prejudice, but he overlooks important details as the best intentioned allies are apt to. Kirsten Dunst, meanwhile, is impressive playing against type as a manager who really struggles to conceal her racism, and finds herself the target of some of the film's sharpest lines. And there's a nicely judged turn from Mahershala Ali as the colonel who has to come to terms with a woman much smarter than he is wanting him for his body.

Despite occasional swells of sentiment that will provoke nostalgia in those who remember the Mercury launches, this is generally a well balanced film, an unintrusive but moving score and excellent costume work rounding out a highly polished production. It has a few slow patches but the sheer volume of material it covers means there's always something worth paying attention to.

Showing a considerably more sophisticated understanding of racism than most major American films to tackle the subject, Hidden Figures highlights the pettiness and absurdity of it more effectively precisely by keeping it in the background. Though superficially following the Hollywood narrative that maintains that natural talent and being a good person will ultimately see one achieve one's dreams, it quietly reveals the extent to which the women depend on sympathetic allies (including Glenn), accidents of fortune, and sheer bloody mindedness. One is left wondering what they might have achieved if they'd had real support from the outset.

Reviewed on: 12 Dec 2016
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The story of three black women who revolutionised computing and engineering and helped put Americans in space.

Director: Theodore Melfi

Writer: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi

Starring: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali Mahershala Ali, Aldiss Hodge, Glen Powell

Year: 2016

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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