Reading most movie reviews—including, I admit, mine—one is apt to see the term "crowd-pleasing" used more as a subtle pejorative than as straightforward praise. (Critics tend to overvalue difficulty, opacity, and the thwarting of narrative expectations.) But there is tremendous value in a well-made, entertaining film that just wants to tell a story that hasn't been told before, and knows enough to get out of its own way in the telling.
Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures is not, in any sense, a challenging, groundbreaking film. Instead, it is—intentionally, I think—a very old-fashioned, movingly effective film about some groundbreaking people.
The people in question are three African-American women, working at NASA in the early days of the space race. Their job title is "computer," for—prior to the arrival of the machines that would take over both the title and the function—NASA used huge pools of women to double-check the endless mathematical calculations involved in sending a man safely into space. (NASA's chief historian Bill Barry has explained that the job was traditionally held by women because "women were much more accurate, much faster, and did a better job—and didn’t complain. And you could pay them less.”) And, because the film takes place in a still heavily segregated Virginia in the early 1960s, these particular women are the "colored computers," relegated—without respect or recognition—to an all-black annex on the west side of NASA's Langley campus.
The central figure here is Katherine Goble Johnson, played with convincingly nerdy fortitude by Taraji P. Henson. A prologue to Katherine's childhood establishes that she is a math prodigy, and—just as importantly—acknowledges how remarkable it is that any of these women could overcome the systemic racism of the time and end up working at NASA. (To help her realize her considerable potential, Katherine's parents are forced to relocate 120 miles, in order to send her to the nearest high school that would educate black women beyond the 8th grade.)
Hidden Figures opens at a time when America was losing the space race, and it is desperation on the part of NASA administrators—more than any egalitarian impulse—that opens up opportunities for Katherine and her colleagues. On the recommendation of the black computers' (untitled, uncompensated) supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, excellent here), Katherine is loaned out to a task group run by Al Harrison (an understatedly decent Kevin Costner) to help figure out a trajectory for Alan Shepard's historic flight. Meanwhile, their friend Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, charismatic and fierce in her second film role) is fighting to officially become what she already is in all but actual title: NASA's first black, female aeronautical engineer.
All three leads are very good, bringing strength, spirit, and humor to roles that are (deliberately, I think) somewhat underwritten. We see a little of the women's private lives—in particular, Katherine's tender romance with a charming military man (Mahershala Ali), and Mary's marriage to a black activist (Aldis Hodge) who doesn't appreciate her less militant struggle for equality—but we learn little of their inner lives. One might wish for a film that brought the characters and issues to richer, more complexly nuanced life—ideally one (unlike this one) with a director and screenwriter of color—but that's not the kind of film this is. Broad, brisk, and lively, Hidden Figures is wisely content to stand back and let the actions of these impressive women speak for themselves.
Hidden Figures never pretends to be anything other than a long-overdue celebration of three STEM pioneers, so the eventual outcome of each of their stories is never really in doubt. But Melfi and his co-writer, Allison Schroeder, manage to deliver all the expected beats while avoiding a remarkable number of expected pitfalls. If the film does not do a deep, sophisticated dive into the institutionalized racism and sexism Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson had to overcome, neither does it turn the era into a cartoonishly phony environment seen in films like The Help. The resistance the women face—from white colleagues like Kirsten Dunst's officious computer supervisor, and Jim Parsons' territorially sniffy mathematician—is realistic and measured: there are no cardboard villains here, nor does the incremental progress the women make lead to big cathartic moments of conciliation and conversion. (Even a potentially disastrous scene where Costner's character desegregates NASA's bathrooms with a sledgehammer comes off less as self-righteous grandstanding, and more as a frustrated desire to get on with the work.) One or two minor moments aside, there is a blessed shortage of phony speechifying and heartfelt transformations. Hidden Figures presents this (no-doubt slightly idealized) NASA as a place where change was possible mostly because the urgency of the work left less and less time for prejudice.
Similarly, the film recognizes that the real-life accomplishments of these women are impressive enough, and don't need a lot of Hollywood embellishment. Katherine, for example, probably is the smartest person in the room, but the film doesn't need to hammer that truth home in overly dramatic fashion, or invent overblown "save-the-day" moments for her. (One such moment that could strike audiences as false—in which affable John Glenn [Glen Powell] refuses to be launched until Katherine has signed off on the math—is both founded in historical truth and played with a refreshing lack of patronizing triumph.) None of the NASA characters—white or black—is portrayed as a conscious civil rights crusader: they are just professionals who care about being able to contribute and help get the job done right. The point is not that three black women single-handedly saved America's space program. The point is to show that these black women—and a lot of others like them—overcame significant barriers to make important contributions that have largely been overlooked by history.
And that's a point worth making, in a film that's designed—and deserves—to be widely enjoyed. I am a tremendous fan of the space program, and a tremendous consumer of popular culture that celebrates it. I've seen The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and HBO's 10-part series From the Earth to the Moon many times each. From those, and other works, I've learned that there are no individual heroes in America's journey to the stars: it has been, and continues to be, the result of thousands of hardworking men and women who have all made small but vital contributions towards a noble collective goal. That's one of the reasons these stories feel like such edifying expressions of our best national selves.
But—though I'd have to watch them all again to be sure—I don't believe there is a single black character in any of those previous works, and precious few women apart from Astronauts' wives. To the extent that cinema serves as our collective cultural memory, the entertaining, crowd-pleasing Hidden Figures is very welcome addition to the genre, and an important and effective corrective to the record.