As the United States races against Russia to put a man in space, NASA finds untapped talent in Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a group of African-American female mathematicians that serve as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Known as "human computers", these women quickly rise in the ranks of NASA alongside many of history's greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Louise Keller:
At first glance, you may not think that a film about black women physicists calculating figures in the space program is the ticket to a good night out. Look again.
It's a great, uplifting story filled with 'firsts' at a time in the 60s when segregation was rife, women's roles were compromised and the NASA space program was keenly competing against the Russians to send the first man into space. Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Theodore Melfi's film concentrates on the real life journeys of three Afro American mathematicians with aspirations. Three delightful performances bring the women to life and in this previously untold story we follow them through the ups and downs of their personal and professional lives. The film may be Hollywood-ised with a predictable structure and consequential emotional curve, but nonetheless provides wonderful source material about strong, talented women struggling for their rights as they aspire to make a meaningful contribution.
After a brief prologue, we meet Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), in a turquoise broken down Chevy somewhere in Virginia. Their police escort to their workplace in NASA is the perfect introduction to the story in which the women perpetually struggle to be recognised in a racially discriminative man's world.
The sight of Katherine, wearing figure hugging dresses and stilettos running to the toilets set aside for Coloured Women in a far away building brings home the ridiculous nature of the segregation, adding additional stress in her male-oriented job in the Space Task Group. Kevin Costner is terrific as her gum-chewing boss, who recognizes Katherine's for her extraordinary mind and abilities and rights numerous wrongs.
Mary stands up for her right to be qualified as an engineer, while Dorothy is subjected to ongoing put-downs from the condescending Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) in her job application as supervisor, a role for which she is not acknowledged but is in fact already fulfilling. There is a touch of romance too, with Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) showing keen interest in Katherine. Watch for the dinner table scene in which Katherine's three excited little girls and mother play an eager audience as Jim makes his intentions clear. It's charming.
We are reminded of the anticipation and excitement of the burgeoning space program as the countdown begins for John Glenn's (Glen Powell) historic launch into space. It is the women - and Katherine in particular - whose task it is to calculate the correct co-ordinates that will allow Glenn to return safely to earth. 'Let's get the girl to check the numbers,' he asks, when the numbers don't tally. Which girl? 'The smart one'.
The production design is faultless and Mandy Walker's cinematographer is excellent. But it is ultimately Henson, Spencer and Monae who provide the charm and glue to keep it all together as the story of three extraordinary women is recounted.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's quite shocking to be reminded how normal and accepted segregation was in the US even within our lifetimes (well, my lifetime), which is not what this story is about, although segregation is a crucial element. It was despite segregation that the three women celebrated in this film made a contribution to the space race in the early 60s. It was a big deal, that space race.
These black women - 'black + women' being the double whammy - would deserve such recognition even in today's de-segregated, post feminist and more enlightened times. Of course, had they been three white men coming up with the maths, we may not have had a film made about them. Just a thought ... And today, NASA is no longer an alien domain for black women, but you wouldn't want to be labelled a 'climate denier'; they don't even have their own toilets, as did coloured women back then. But I digress.
Hidden Figures is a terrific film in the style of Hollywood 'applause' films, where the heroes or heroines are portrayed as not only morally superior but endlessly likeable. That is no doubt true, but the film's tone is so earnest as to make it seem a bit contrived. My cynicism is not meant to take away from the power of the story or the excellent craftsmanship of the filmmakers. There are moments of humour and drama that generate a lovely texture, with the climactic propulsion of the first American man into space as the big bang. In this case, the mission is made possible by the women at the heart of the story; these women are not supporting the male project, they enable it.
Performances are outstanding, the technical and creative departments excel themselves and the direction is taut; at our preview screening the audience broke into spontaneous applause - not a regular occurrence.
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HIDDEN FIGURES (PG)
CAST: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hidge, Glen Powell, Kimberley Quinn
PRODUCER: Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping, Pharell Williams
DIRECTOR: Theodore Melfi
SCRIPT: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder (book by Margot Lee Shetterly)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Mandy Walker
EDITOR: Peter Teschner
MUSIC: Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharell Williams, Hans Zimmer
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Wynn Thomas
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 16, 2017