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Hidden Figures Review


On the surface, Hidden Figures should have been a mild cinematic curiosity, revealing a little-known chapter of our space program.  Thanks to Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent); his Oscar-nominated screenplay adaptation with Allison Schroeder of Margot Lee Shetterly's book; and the performances of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures is a fast-rising darling of the awards season.  It's a fact-based, time capsule look at the US of the late-1950's and early-1960s, a dramatic and fearful time, starting with the Soviet Union's Cold War victories of Sputnik, Laika, and Yuri Gagarin and America's fitful, desperate efforts to catch up.  On a personal level within that scientific and geopolitical drama, we see the sociological drama of the continuing fight for civil rights when some states saw fit to ignore federal laws demanding integration and equality.

Sassy Mary Jackson (Monae), nerdy Katherine Goble (Henson), and crafty Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) are best friends, working in a pool of African American mathematicians, or "computers," at the NASA Space Lab at Langley.  As much as the US is in a race for space, these women are in their own races: Mary wants to be the first Black female engineer; Dorothy, the de facto supervisor of the "computers," wants to achieve relevance; and Katherine, the true genius of the group and a widowed mother of three girls, just wants to prove herself and remain employed.  That is problematic; their jobs will become defunct when the giant IBM electronic computer is set up.  With encouragement from Mary's Polish immigrant supervisor, Paul Zielinski (Olek Krupa), she battles the courts for the right to attend college for a master's degree.  Dorothy jousts with her boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst,) to help all of the women in her care as she learns the language of electronic computing.  The strongest thread follows Katherine, who is assigned to work with, and against, the best and brightest mathematicians--all men, all in white shirt and tie--in a lab that will plan the first US manned space flight.  The top math-man is Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), a skeptical and jealous rival, who tries to keep Katherine under his thumb and away from Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), NASA manned space flighty chief, whose monomaniacal rivalry against the Russians won't allow for second best.   

Away from work, the women and their families socialize at each others' home and at church.  They know each others' quirks and foibles, and they play on them as they tease and bond.  To this end, Dorothy and Mary have taken on the task of matching Katherine with tall drink of water newcomer to their church, National Guard Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).  With love and humor the women and their families support each other at home and at work; with grace and bulldog tenacity they overcome personal, social, and professional obstacles; and with brilliance of mind they help drive NASA toward John Glenn's (Glen Powell) first US Manned space flight.

It is rare that an audience breaks into spontaneous, enthusiastic applause at the end of the film, but that happened at Hidden Figures.  It is unabashedly inspirational, and it has its sappy moments, but the marvelous cast and stirring score--provided by the unlikely but inspired grouping of Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch--drive the story with power and conviction. It's the best we have seen Kevin Costner in years, Kirsten Dunst is a beautifully cold bureaucrat, and Mahershala Ali is a strong but sensitive suitor (and a breakout star--the actor, who played Boggs in the Mockingjay films, has been nominated for Supporting Actor in Moonlight).  But Hidden Figures belongs to the three co-stars: Janelle Monae proves (as she does in Moonlight) that she has a future in film; the dependably excellent Octavia Spencer earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Dorothy. Among these stars, the brightest is Taraji P. Henson.  Henson's performance is at once touching, humorous, and strong.  She has a scene with Kevin Costner that alone should have earned her an Academy Award nomination, but, unfortunately, she was overlooked.   The film, however will not be. As the awards season enters the final stretch, Hidden Figures is closing strongly on the Best Film front runners La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight.

9 out of 10  


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