‘Hidden Figures’ is a Vital Story, Told Haphazardly

A slapdash movie, nearly redeemed by its subject matter and striking performances.

Hidden Figures tells the true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, a trio of African-American women whose work at NASA in the early 1960s was instrumental to putting Americans into space (and, later, onto the moon). It’s a vital and important piece of our history, one that we absolutely should’ve heard by now, and the existence of a major motion picture concerning it is a net good. It’s also a strikingly slapdash movie, clumsily executed and filled with scenes that are barely half-written, if that. These two facts can co-exist. One may matter more to you than the other.

Our primary focus is Katherine (Taraji P. Henson, doing a lot of glasses-acting), a brilliant mathematician whose origin story is hurriedly told in a pre-credit sequence that plays like a trailer for another movie. We then shuttle ahead to 1961, where she works alongside Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monáe) in the “colored computing” section of NASA; Katherine is a computer, back when that term described a person and not a machine, Mary wants to be an engineer, and Dorothy simply wants the pay and title that match her current duties as the division’s supervisor.

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Katherine is plucked out of the pool to go to work for Space Task Group director Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner in his JFK glasses, haircut, and disposition; there’s an absurdly narrow range of things Costner can do, but when he’s cast in that range, specifically when he’s asked to do his Gary Cooper-esque plain-spoken all-American good guy thing, few actors can do it better. Costumer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus savvily puts Henson in brightly colored dresses, to make her seem even more of an outsider in their sea of bright white shirts, and they treat her as such – at least initially. But soon enough, she shows what she can do, and turns them around; all three of them do.

Their story plays out pretty much as you’d expect. The exposition is clunky and the emotions are broadly telegraphed; we find out that Katherine’s a widow in a tender bedside scene, in which her children mention that Daddy “is with the angels,” cuing the twinkly pianos and strings. The score is too much there, and throughout the film – you want it to leave you alone and let you feel something on your own, although it’s clearly necessary to navigate the wild tonal swings. The worst of them is the subplot concerning the distance from Katherine’s desk to the colored washroom several buildings away, which is played as zany slapstick until it’s played for even nuttier pathos, up to and including its big payoff line (“Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” and no, I’m not making that up).

Yet there’s plenty to like, and recommend, here. Henson, Spencer, and Monáe work out a charming and credible three-way dynamic that gives life to even their draggier scenes; when they’re sparking off each other, it feels less like a historical drama than 9 to 5 (in the best possible way), down to the singer-turned-actor with the firecracker spirit providing the earthy life force. (Between this and Moonlight, the cinematic arrival of Ms. Monáe has been one of my favorite pop culture stories of the fall – particularly since that’s a transition that doesn’t usually go so well.) Their individual moments are equally captivating; you may find yourself, as I did, realizing you’re really just watching Henson doing math, but it’s thrilling. And Monáe’s Moonlight co-star Mahershala Ali shows up as Katherine’s suitor, and even though his whole damn subplot is an afterthought, when he tells her, “I know marryin’ you means marryin’ your girls as well,” it’s still a wow moment.

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But the whole movie is like that – often working, when it does, in spite of itself. The director is one Theodore Melfi, who helmed the okey-dokey Bill Murray vehicle St. Vincent; he wrote the film with Allison Schroeder. Both are white, which is worth mentioning not to keep banging the same drum about representation (though, frankly, BANG BANG BANG), but because it so thoroughly informs the specific way they choose to tell these black women’s story: primarily via a series of scenes in which one of our protagonist is wildly (often verbally) underestimated, so she can step up, show her gifts, and leave everyone’s mouth agape.

It’s a good scene, the first dozen times. But it’s telling, how the filmmakers only view those interactions at that basic, surface altitude. They seem only interested in how they relate to, and confound, white people – and how those white people will, in turn, eventually step up for them, but perhaps only because they’ve “proven” themselves exceptional, “better than,” the Talented Tenth and all that. Yet there’s a key moment near the end of the movie where the filmmakers flirt with the tough truth at the bottom of those interactions – that this was still the 1960s, and even these brilliant women were still the victims of the everyday racism of the era. And then they weasel out of that moment.

A tougher shot of truth there would’ve made Hidden Figures a more honest picture, but that’s frankly not the kind of movie they’re making. It’s a crowd-pleaser, an inspiring tale if not an entirely truthful one, and on those terms, that’s probably fine. There’s nothing wrong with a little earnestness, and it is, after all, very hard not to be inspired by this stuff – even if the rough edges have been sanded down.

Hidden Figures is out Christmas Day in limited release.