VOD film review: Hidden Figures
Ivan Radford | On 07, Jul 2017Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraj P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner
Watch Hidden Figures online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Every now and then, a film comes along that makes you grin from ear to ear. Hidden Figures is one of them. That’s partly because it’s crafted perfectly to follow all the expected conventions of a feel-good Hollywood movie. But it’s mostly because it uses those conventions to tell a story that deserves to be heard.
The tale in question is that of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. The fact that you probably don’t recognise those names is precisely why Hidden Figures is such a gloriously satisfying watch. All three were African American women working at NASA in the 1960s.
Director Theodore Melfi’s script, co-written with Allison Schroeder ensures that each one gets a chance to shine: Mary (Morae) is an engineer who is being blocked from joining NASA by their ever-shifting goalposts of qualifications; Dorothy (Spencer) is a supervisor, but can’t get anyone above her to acknowledge that and pay her accordingly; and Katherine (Henson) is a ‘calculator’, a mathematician capable of processing analytic geometry equations in the blink of an eye. All of them are key players in the USA’s Space Race to get higher, farther, faster than the Russians: Dorothy works out how to program the computers that get the astronauts off the ground; Katherine calculates their trajectory; and Mary fixes the landing module so that they can come back down again.
In taking so much care to showcase each person’s importance, the film inevitably has to play with the facts, creating daunting bathroom trips for Katherine, who has to leave the main building and head 20 minutes to the nearest ‘coloured’ toilets, and a legal battle for Mary to attend the local, white high school. But they all serve to ensure each one gets their time in the spotlight with the most rewarding arc possible. It takes a deceptive amount of skill to tick such obvious boxes without descending into cheese, and Melfi manages to do so impeccably: Hidden Figures doesn’t just raise these women up on a pedestal; it straps them to a pedestal, sticks the whole thing on the end of a rocket and gleefully hits the ignition.
The cast are stellar enough to balance the mainstream with something meaningful – Spencer, all polite attitude and determination, Morae all assertive, earnest passion, Henson all quiet conviction and calculations – and there’s no denying just how meaningful this story is. Untold for years because of their race, their tale is a broad stroke of women overcoming prejudiced odds, but one that allows us to see every tiny line of everyday racism they have to cross. Henson impresses above all, fending off scene-stealing competition from the always-fabulous Mahershala Ali as her suave love interest (with just a hint of intimidation at her brains) and Kevin Costner as her noble white boss (“Here at NASA we all pee the same colour!”).
Costner’s presence in the cast is a good indication of the film’s feather-light tone, which serves up plenty of laughs as well as serious social clout. From Katherine’s snooty colleague, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who gets his names on all her reports, to Glen Powell as the cowboy-like John Glenn (the first American to go around the Earth), there’s a cartoony feel to this version of real life, but it’s a feel-good cartoon that invites the whole family to sit down in front of the telly and celebrate. Gather the kids and watch their dreams take off.