It’s a fact of movie life that, during the holiday season, tears will be shed. No sooner had viewers dried and fluffed their hankies after seeing “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” than they were awash again during “Loving” and “Lion.” Even “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s affectionate ode to song-and-dance musicals, tempers the celebration with a generous helping of heartache.
So one of the most gratifying qualities of “Hidden Figures” is how it bursts onto the screen like a shot of distilled, exhilarating joy. This bracing movie, about a group of brilliant African American women whose scientific and mathematical skills helped NASA launch its space exploration program in the 1950s and 1960s, gets off to a spirited start and rarely lets up, sharing with viewers a little-known chapter of history as inspiring as it is intriguing.
After a brief prologue, when we meet Katherine Johnson as a teenage math prodigy, the film catches up with her in 1961, when she’s a young widow working at NASA’s Langley facility in Hampton, Va., as a “human computer,” sharing a ride to work with her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. The fact that these gifted women are played by the equally gifted Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, respectively, says all you need to know about a movie propelled by their alternately salty and affecting performances. Far from a dry scientific tutorial or historical treatise, “Hidden Figures” is a warm, lively, often funny depiction of women whose brains and work ethics were indefatigable, even in the face of racism and sexism at their most oppressive.
Adapted by Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book and directed by Melfi, “Hidden Figures” takes place at the height of the space race in the early 1960s, when the Soviets are winning the competition to get a manned mission into orbit, and when the pressure is on to get astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) and his colleagues in the Mercury program into their own supercharged tin cans. Although NASA is strictly segregated, with the African American mathematicians occupying their own office, Katherine is the most gifted computer on the site. She’s sent to work with Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who’s annoyed when she disappears frequently throughout the day, but is impressed by her impeccable results.
It turns out she’s running a mile and a half to use the “colored only” bathroom, a sequence played for both laughs and wincing disbelief in “Hidden Figures.” Just as family and marriage pointed up the pathology of racism in “Loving,” this movie adroitly portrays the sheer waste and inefficiency of racism and misogyny. Just think how much has been lost, the movie suggests, over centuries of depriving ourselves of the brains, talents and leadership of more than half our population?
Those ideas weave their way gracefully through “Hidden Figures,” which centers mostly on Katherine (including her courtship with a handsome Army colonel named James Johnson, played by Mahershala Ali), but includes vividly effective scenes of Dorothy teaching herself to program a new piece of technology called the IBM, and Mary pursuing her engineering degree at a local all-white high school. Some of the film’s most stirring scenes feature the hackneyed conceit of clueless white folk being enlightened by their African American educators, but Henson, Spencer and Monáe give them grit and knowing gravitas. If characters played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst sometimes seem too cruel to be true, they feature in some of the film’s most bluntly effective scenes. Costner is ideally suited to play the rumpled, constantly eating Harrison, portrayed here as a man too focused and distracted to have time for petty prejudices.
Attractively shot and designed and driven along by a catchy score by Pharrell Williams (who’s also a producer), “Hidden Figures” is pure pleasure to watch, with Melfi having as much fun with gorgeous period costumes and interior elements as with ratcheting up the tension as Glenn’s takeoff approaches. (It’s Katherine’s breathtakingly precise calculations that allow him to launch and land safely.) Viewers old enough to remember how that voyage went will find it infused with new suspense and energy this time around; those who don’t are in for an unforgettable ride.
With Glenn’s recent passing, “Hidden Figures” has taken on even more poignancy and timeliness. It’s difficult to imagine a more stirring way to honor his memory, as well as the courage and vision of the extraordinary women who helped him soar.
PG. Opens Sunday at area theaters. Contains some mature thematic elements and brief coarse language. 127 minutes.