When I was growing up in the 1960s, two seminal events shaped my era and my thinking. One was the Vietnam war. The second was the space race. The first appealed to a (now, thankfully, largely dormant) youthful militarism in me; the second to a spirit of romantic adventure nourished by childhood readings of, amongst others, H Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, and WE Johns. Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Yuri Gagarin – these early astronauts fired my imagination and accompanied me in my teenage years.
While space has been the subject of a myriad of Hollywood sci-fi movies, relatively few feature films have been made about the early US space efforts. "The Right Stuff", that excellent film by Philip Kaufman, was a very good example of what Hollywood could do with this subject, if it put its mind to it. Ron Howard's exciting "Apollo 13" is another excellent example. Now, with "Hidden Figures", Hollywood has once again paid an entertaining and illuminating visit to the early years of America in space.
Based on a true story, "Hidden Figures" tells the tale of three smart, highly educated young women who went to work as mathematicians at NASA in the very early 1960s. All three of them were African-American. This was at a time when segregation was still the law in many parts of the US, but NASA desperately needed trained and experienced mathematicians, whatever their colour, whatever their gender. Remember, this was at a time before electronic computers became widely available. Rather quaintly, NASA expressly called its human mathematicians "computers". So, we have a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing story of America's early efforts in space, the black-and-white divide in American society, the burgeoning movement of women into the workforce, and the impact of new technology on a workforce. Oh, and a dash of romance too.
The cast is very good. The three black ladies, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson (all real-life people; the real Katherine Johnson, now very elderly and in a wheelchair, made a brief appearance at this week's Oscars ceremony), are played in a very upbeat and enthusiastic way by Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae respectively. They deal with the racism and petty discrimination that come their way with grace and good humour. They hardly ever get "bolshie" with the pesky whites. The opening scene, where they are driving to work and are pulled over by a harassing, racist Southern cop, is a classic not to be missed. Full marks to the ladies! Also in the cast are Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, scientific director and the ladies' overall boss. He cares little about the colour of his staff; as long as they get the job done, he will treat everyone decently and upfront. Then there is Kirsten Dunst, who plays Vivian Mitchell, the black ladies' supervisor. She is cool, aloof, efficient, barely conceals her racism, and treats our three heroines more or less as naughty children.
The NASA workforce in the early 1960s is depicted as still segregated (an overstatement of the true historical position, it must be noted). The black mathematicians work separately from the white scientists. Blacks and whites still have separate toilets and bathrooms. This latter is a hilarious but uncomfortable theme in the story, as the black toilets are located a long, long way from where our three heroines work. Calls of nature lead to excessive times away from the workplace. Not our ladies' fault, but the white bosses get riled by this apparent absenteeism. Only when the problem is explained to Kevin Costner's character, does he take drastic action and de-segregate the ladies toilets in the interests of workplace efficiency. There is a another telling scene, showing the segregationist temper of the times, when NASA staff are assembled – into separate groups, one white and one black – to greet visiting Project Mercury astronauts. The visitors are steered by officials towards the white employees. However, astronaut John Glenn makes a point of deliberately carrying out a meet-and-greet with the black staff members, shaking hands and chatting with them.
The three African-Americans are very, very good at what they do: eg, Katherine is asked to double-check the work of her white colleagues. This, as you can imagine, leads to some very ruffled feathers. One of the white scientists, played by Jim Parsons from "The Big Bang Theory" (he's turning up in a few movies lately), objects strongly to this. However, the ladies become increasingly central to the operation: Katherine attends vital planning meetings, while Dorothy plays a leading role using NASA's first IBM electronic computer, as well as taking on major supervising tasks (though without, for much of the story, the much-prized title of “supervisor”, for which she yearns). John Glenn trusts their work so much that he won't go into orbit until all the maths have been okay-ed by the ladies. When a serious problem arises during his earth orbits, Katherine helps solve the situation, bringing Glenn safely back to earth.
As a background to this, is the excitement of putting these early space expeditions together. Rockets often didn't work. Existing science didn't cover many of the problems, so it had to be invented from scratch. And looming over everything were the Russians. They had a well-advanced space program – would they get there before the Americans?
Cynics might be tempted to say this movie is just "The Right Stuff" meets "The Help", and designed to appease critics of Hollywood's supposed failure in recent times to make important movies about black themes. The recent 2017 Oscar awards should lay that charge to rest for a while, I would have thought. "Hidden Figures" may well be labelled politically correct, but director Theodore Melfi tells an engaging and fascinating story very well. At almost 2 1/2 hours in length, I feel the movie is perhaps a trifle over-long, but one may forgive this little excess. Although nominated in several categories, the film garnered no major prizes at the recent Oscars. No matter – it is most enjoyable anyway and, despite some inevitable Hollywood embellishments to the truth, you learn some real-life history.
My female companion enjoyed the movie as much as I did, so I am confident in giving it a high recommendation.
My star rating (out of five): * * * * 1/4