“Hidden Figures” is well-intentioned and long overdue, if a bit simplistic

Saw “Hidden Figures” last weekend; the movie finally delivers the long overdue true story of the human ‘computers’ who helped crunch seriously heavy numbers in the earliest days of the US space program (50 years overdue, in fact).   Most of these women were African-American, and many went on to have long careers within NASA long after their jobs were made obsolete by early electronic usurpers.

The three women spotlighted in the film are a Taraji P. Henson are mathematics prodigy Katherine Johnson, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer as computer programming pioneer Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, who successfully sued to attend a white school in order to get the necessary education for her engineering degree (this was in the Jim Crow days of the segregated south).

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(L to R) Janelle Monae as engineer Mary Jackson, Taraji P. Henson as math prodigy Katherine Johnson and Octavia Spencer as computer programming pioneer Dorothy Vaughan.

Before I get into a detailed review of the movie, I just want to say upfront that all three actresses are magnificent.  I was particularly impressed with Henson as Katherine.  Her performance  just oozes Oscar nomination, and I don’t mean that cynically.   She really is the de facto leader of this group.  Her glasses and shy demeanor mask an iron conviction, stamina and fortitude equal to that of the rocket jockeys who were able to go into space based on her calculations.    But none of those men ever had to walk across an entire campus and across a street just to use a “Whites Only” men’s room.   And none of those men were ever questioned by police because they were driving too nice a car for someone of their skin color.    Henson’s ‘bathroom breakdown’ speech is a showstopper that led to spontaneous applause from the audience in the screening I attended.  Henson is the center of the movie, and she owns it.

Octavia Spencer emanates her usual strength and a heartfelt smile that could warm an igloo in the middle of January.   She is no less than excellent here, but that wasn’t exactly a surprise since I also enjoyed her very different (and Oscar-winning) turn as a no crap-taking maid in “The Help” (2011).   Janelle Monae is solid too, and beyond her wonderful courtroom speech much later in the film, she serves as something of a one-woman greek chorus to the unjustness of time and place.

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Jim Parsons, Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Costner 

Next up is the supporting cast, which is a bit more of a mixed bag.  Of this group, Kevin Costner clearly leads as group manager Al Harrison;  who is a typically Costner-esque straight shooter who cuts through the bullshit to do what is right, period.   Costner’s Al Harrison is a product of his time, but he is also angered by unjust limitations of gender and race roles that force the best minds in his group to work in the shadows.  He has some heroic bits of business in the film and we get glimpses into what drives him.  His relationship with Katherine (a working relationship only) is quite touching, especially when she is called upon by no less than astronaut John Glenn to crunch the numbers for his reentry procedure.   Costner’s Harrison is the only white supporting character with any real definition within the movie.

Less fortunate here is “Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons who plays threatened, two-dimensional engineer Paul Stafford.   Parsons is once again seemingly typecast as an aloof, arrogant math nerd; think BBT’s Sheldon Cooper with a slight deference to authority and a subtle stink of racism about him.   I was a bit disappointed.   A part of me thinks (and knows, after HBO’s “The Normal Heart”) that he’s actor enough to have taken a crack at something in the scope of the Costner role.

Another performer reduced to a ‘white devil’ role is Kirsten Dunst (“Interview with the Vampire”) who plays blond-haired, blue-eyed ice queen labor pool manager Vivian Mitchell.   The role feels like a rental from “Southern Belles R Us”, complete with slight southern affectation and down-nose dismissive stare.   It’s a made-for-TV caliber role more suited for a Lifetime Network movie.   Like Parsons’ role, it’s two-dimensional and disappointing.   You practically count the minutes till these two get their subtle comeuppances.

The original Mercury 7 astronauts are also depicted in the film, but only John Glenn, who personally relies on Katherine’s data over an untrustworthy new computer, is given any significant screen time.   My biggest nit about his portrayal here is that the then-40 year old John Glenn is played by an actor (Glenn Powell) who barely looks old enough to drink, with a slightly anachronistic haircut as well.   Oh well…

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Astronaut John Glenn (Glenn Powell) meets a slightly starstruck Katherine Johnson (played my Taraji P. Henson, in an Oscar-caliber performance).

A love story is seamlessly, if predictably, introduced as we see the widowed-with-three-kids Katherine begin a relationship with a warm, solid Colonel Jim Johnson (played with earthy nobility by “House of Cards” supporting player Mahershala Ali).  The relationship is reduced to a side story, but it also helps to keep Katherine grounded and to give her hope for her and her children; a partner who is a tower of strength that she can lean on now and then, rather than shoulder everything herself.

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Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, studies her would-be replacements; which later become her key to advancement.

Throughout the film there are many amusing anachronistic glimpses of those days-gone-by; including Dorothy’s mastering (after much study) of the room-sized IBM would-be HAL 9000 that aims to take jobs from her crew… until she masters it herself, and teaches her girls how to program it as well.   The real-life Dorothy Vaughan was a computer prodigy.   This was back when computers were clunky, unyielding, card-punching, analog monsters and not the sleek, pearly-plastic toys that fit in one’s pocket today.   There is also stock footage of some real-life rocket launches (some of the footage is mismatched, but that’s a minor nit most won’t notice).   Overall, the time and place are well recreated.

I suppose at the end of the movie my biggest disappointments with the film were in the two-dimensional supporting characters, the simplicity of the storytelling, and the overall “TV-movie” feel of it.

In its defense, I learned afterward that “Hidden Figures” was made on a scant $25 million dollar budget (basically the catering bill for a Michael Bay trucks-into-robots opus), so that part of it is understandable.   What isn’t as easy to forgive is that these great women and their stories are presented very simplistically.   We see great dramatic speeches and commentary, but these women (as written, not acted) are reduced to noble, long-suffering archetypes.   It’s the actresses’ performances that make the noble archetypes come to life.

It’s a little ironic that after nearly 50 years of waiting to get their stories to the big screen (or ANY screen), the best these ladies get is a simplistic, albeit good-intentioned TV-style movie and not the rich, full-bodied A-caliber theatrical experience they truly deserved.   However it’s also interesting to note what is done here, given director Theodore Melfi’s micro budget, and that he scored three truly terrific actresses to walk in the shoes of these too-long ignored pioneers.  They were as vital to the early days of space as the astronauts, engineers or mission controllers.  This is not the astronauts’ story ala “The Right Stuff”; it’s about “The Wronged Right Stuff.”

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There’s nothing hidden about these ladies’ wicked talents; both the real-life inspirations and the actresses who play them.

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