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Inside NASA And Three Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures takes a look at three women who made contributions to the success of the NASA program as the space race began. Most of the movie takes place during the years 1961 and 1962, as the Mercury missions were about to begin, as well as its first three space flights. At the Langley Research Center in Virginia, a group of mathmaticians works in the segregated West Area Computers complex, and sometimes get assignments to work in the East Area complex. One day, their de facto supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), receives word from her superior, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), that East Area needs a computer to double check the calculations for the trajectories NASA plans to use on the first Mercury mission. Dorothy sends Katherine Coleman Goble (Taraji P. Henson), who works under Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) in a division supervised by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Katherine has to deal with redacted information and segregated personal facilities to do the needed work until Al takes notices of her long absences and makes changes. Katherine also finds a fan in John Glenn (Glen Powell), whose mission will be the first outside the earth's atmosphere.
One of the other ladies under Dorothy, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), also gets assigned to the East Area, working on the space capsule design with Karl Zielinski (Oleg Kupek). Like Katherine, she'd like to be treated as an equal on the project, but has been unable to get the requisite engineering courses due to school segregation. She has to petition the courts to enrol in the needed classes, which are offered at night at an all-white school. Dorothy, meanwhile, reads up on the computer language needed to make the facility's computers run efficiently. The ladies also have to give up much of their personal time, especially the widowed Katherine, who has to leave her three daughters in the care of their grandmother. At a church social, though, Katherine gets introduced to Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a military officer recently assigned to a nearby base. In time, they marry.
Hidden Figures is based on the lives Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary led, chronicled in the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The movie is a crowd-pleasing and celebratory look who not only learned to deal with the personal obstacles they faced, but they also wanted to make the space race as successful as possible for the United States. Director Theodore Melfi, whose previous (and debut) feature was the 2014 dramedy St. Vincent, successfully weaves the three separate stories into a choherent whole. Some of the elements seem more geared for a contemporary audience than a true reflection of the pre-Civil Rights 1960s, especially the scene where Dorothy and her staff march in unison to their work. That scene seems to be more inspired by The Right Stuff, where the Mercury astronauts walk in unison in one of that movie's more famous moments. The more modern-inspired moments, though, do represent the changes that were to come for both NASA and America.
Henson, Spencer, and Monae show their determination and individuality with their performances. Henson, as Katherine, is quiet and unassertive, letting her math do the talking. She only becomes more assertive when Al takes notice of her. She gets the grudging admiration of a very self-assured Paul, who sees she can do the computing required, but doesn't want to give her credit on the reports she types for him. She never lets him or anyone else get in the way of the computing she does. Spencer, as Dorothy, proudly leads the West Area, even though nobody has officially held that title for over a year. She uses what she has learned to sneak into the computer room and make it work. Monae, as Mary, is the most vocal, letting Zielinski know that she has the ability to be of greater assistance to their efforts, if given the opportunities afforded him. Costner heads the supporting cast as Al, who needs someone to invent the math, no matter who that might be. Parsons, Dunst, and Ali also provide capable support.
Hidden Figures takes a look at some uncommon knowledge about NASA, and shows how people from diverse backgrounds had to look past this diversity to succeed at a common cause. Nobody pretended that looking past obvious differences would be easy, but three ladies set out to prove themselves with co-workers who scarcely knew or cared about them. The Soviets may have been the first to send a man into space, but the Americans showed the world a team effort of their own.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Hidden Figures 3.5 stars. Countdown to change.