The majority of inspirational story movies these days might as well be made in a computer. It’s as safe a bet as they come. Underdogs lose, underdogs win, crowds clap. They’re practically a studio tax write-off at this point. However, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures has a very clear and important mission in mind. The directive: create an inspirational All-American biopic for all the young girls who stayed at home when their fathers and brothers saw Nice Athletes Beat Mean Athletes 7. This isn’t a film about winning, this is a film about scraping your fingers to the bone to do something valuable, even if said work goes unrecognized.
Hidden Figures spans the early 1960s during the Space Race, centering on three African American women critical to NASA’s enterprise. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a virtuoso mathematician assigned to be a human calculator for the Space Task Group. She’s a cog in the machine, grinding out equations to the somewhat apathetic eyes of her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and higher-ranking co-worker Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is a tech savvy overseer a group of female number crunchers with ambitions of climbing higher in the administration. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is a gifted engineer desperately trying to go through the red tape needed to do such work for the company. The film mostly focusses on Katherine, with the other ladies’ stories running parallel and occasionally intertwining, as the three are close friends.
Melfi could have easily coasted on the inherent importance of this story and phoned in a bland effort. Instead, he’s brought these amazing women to life with three pitch-perfect actresses at the top of their game. Henson does what may be her best work yet as Johnson. Many actors who take on ‘misunderstood genius’ roles theatrically infuse the character with social awkwardness. Henson takes an entirely different tact, practically overflowing with charisma in every scene. She’s the most intelligent person in the room and often uses that intellect for sharp humor. It’s great fun to watch her mow over people in higher positions who are clearly far below her league. Spencer is a little more reserved, with a more potent animosity for the people who have held her down. She’s somebody looking for the perfect opportunity to stand up for herself. Monáe brings a sharp determination to Jackson that’s so compelling, that it’s a little disappointing that most of her material seems to be on the cutting room floor. In fact, the three ladies aren’t on screen together as much as one may think, which is a shame, as their chemistry is electric.
Unfortunately, many of the supporting players do get lost behind our three wonderful leads. Kevin Costner might as well be checking his watch as he sighs through the mentor character we’ve seen him play hundreds of times. Harrison does get a few strong moments, but they are by virtue of the script, not Costner. Kirsten Dunst puts on what may be the worst on-screen southern accent in years as an administrator who’s trying her best to regulate Spencer. Parsons’ Paul Stafford is a sniveling brat who isn’t particularly dynamic, becoming a more of a stepping stone than a character by the halfway point. The only one who really shines is Mahershala Ali, who brings a warm charm to Henson’s love interest.
This is a highly conventional movie, but what saves it from feeling trite is a sharp screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. A story so full of procedural discussions about equations and mechanics could easily wear out its welcome. As such, the script works overtime to make sure every scene is filled with crackling dialogue. It also intelligently avoids making anybody into a mustache twirling comic strip racist. Most of the white characters are people who have nothing personal against African Americans but are simply so accustomed to how things are that they don’t have it in them to be different. It’s a nuance that extends to even the less well-realized characters, giving the whole film an extra layer of realism. Melfi’s NASA feels like a real workplace, with people desperately trying to get along and work together despite their societal biases.
At the end of this film, I looked to my right and saw a preteen girl sitting with her father. They both seemed delighted, but the look in the girl’s eyes warmed my heart. She seemed genuinely inspired by what she had just seen. Hidden Figures certainly isn’t going to win any praise for originality. However, that standard structure is built as meticulously as a rocket ship, with each piece designed to be as robustly entertaining and empowering as possible. In a world where most fantasy superheroes are male, it’s high time we start telling the stories of some real life heroines who are just as mighty.