Saturday, December 31, 2016

Film Review - Hidden Figures

A green broken down Chevy Impala sits at the side of the road, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is perched below trying to get the car to start as a local police officer pulls up to access the situation. Once the women show him their NASA badges he provides an escort to Langley after Dorothy completes a quick fix on the car. The women Dorothy, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) are human computers. They work in cramped quarters in an outbuilding basement on the NASA labeled the Coloured Computing Group. The calculate manually the geometry to project the launch and landing for the Mercury 7 astronauts. The Americans are in a race with the Soviet Union who have put Sputnik into orbit and are close to doing a manned mission into space.

Director Theodor Melfi tells an important story however the screenplay written by himself and Allison Schroeder does not deep enough into the dirty areas of the subject matter. The racial reality of Virginia in 1961 is displayed in several scenes but the passages are brief and could have used a longer look to give the sequences more impact and meaning. The script more often that not plays up the comedic aspect of racial injustice as in the running gag of Katherine's need to run back to the West Computer Building to find the only coloured women's washroom on campus when can't hold it ably longer and has to relieve herself.

The narrative does hit the main parts of the women's stories Mary Jackson's struggle to become the first NASA female engineer having to go to court for the privilege of attending night engineer courses at a local high school. Dorothy Vaughan knowing the meaning of the arrival of the IBM machine learns FORTRAN and teaches her girls to code the IBM mainframe to protect their jobs. Katherine's struggles external with her all male Space Task Force colleagues and internal with herself to trust that she's the best with numbers in the room.

The three female leads present their real life counterparts well. Singer Janelle Monae who was also very strong in this years Moonlight seems to get all of the best comedic lines and is the most assertive of the three. Octavia Spencer's Dorothy Vaughan is the most thoughtful of the three while Taraj Henderson leads the cast as the mathematical genius Katherine G. Johnson. Kevin Costner provides a steady hand as department head Al Harrison and look for Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali in his third notable performance of the year in vital supporting roles.

Hidden Figures tells the story of important contributors to the golden age of the American Space program that were not allowed to put their names on reports, were hidden away in a basement out building but did key work for NASA getting their rockets off of the launch pad and back for a safe splashdown. The women faced many obstacles to do their work many of them put in place by the laws of their country and their colleagues. The battles fought deserved more screen time but the subject matter of the piece makes it worth a watch.

*** Out of 4.

Hidden Figures | Theodore Melfi | U.S.A. | 127 Minutes.

Tags: NASA, Langley Virginia, Computer, Coloured, Mercury 7, Sputnik, John Glen, Alan Sheppard,

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