Hidden Figures

December 25, 2016

PG

Hidden Figures Film Reviews

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It's clear that Hidden Figures is a story that demands to be told, and it's a pity it wasn't told better. It honors the essential work that three African-American number-crunchers did at Langley, Virginia, in 1961-62, shortly before NASA moved to Texas. Room-sized IBM 7090s were being used to figure out how to bring home Col. John Glenn (Glen Powell) after his orbit around the earth. In this version, it's unsung human calculators that save the mission.

Taraji P. Henson is Kathryn Johnson, a mathlete with oversized spectacles that keep sliding down her nose. Janelle Monae is her colleague Mary Jackson; and Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, the supervisor in everything but job title in the Colored Computing Section. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) reprises the humiliations of segregated restrooms and schools, still disgracing our nation even as we aimed for the stars.

The clever title refers both to the women hidden from the history book as well as to the redacted calculations these engineers checked, with key information blacked out for security reasons. Scenes of early space travel, in CG form, have some of the excitement of Phil Kaufman's The Right Stuff. But the problem is the script, co-written by Stanford alumnus Allison Schroeder and Melfi, adapting Margot Lee Shetterly's non-fiction book. Adaptation, in this case, means adding a ticking clock that pounds like the Tell-Tale Heart itself as Glenn prepares to launch. (He's seen standing around waiting for Johnson's final calculations before he goes into orbit.) The dinner table scenes are of Tyler Perry banality. Characters stand and deliver their backstories: "I'm a Polish Jew whose parents died in a concentration camp," one announces.

Perhaps at some point Hidden Figures was sold as a trip to the Mad Men era—Jim Parsons, as a snide middle-managing scold, has a resemblance to Vincent Kartheiser. Kevin Costner excels as this Jon Hamm-worthy JFK-era boss in baggy white business shirts and skinny ties. Powell's version of the late John Glenn is a knightly, fearless figure, a dream of an astronaut. (His silver space suit fits as if it were tailored.) Powell and Costner tend to eclipse both Monae and the co-starring Mahershala Ali, as Kathryn's love interest... never mind that Monae and Ali were indelible figures in the recent Moonlight. The movie is loaded with actors who are sharper than their material.