Real-life events have often proven to be fertile ground for filmmakers. Even when events are apparently well documented, such as NASA and the American space program, they have made for fine pieces of film-making as they can sometimes find the little known stories and illuminate them. Hidden Figures is a prime example of this as it takes viewers back to the early 1960s as America pushed headlong into the Space Race and the role that a group of female African-American mathematicians, effectively tasked as human computers, played in that effort.
In telling this story, the film brings together a strong cast. Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson play the three leads of the film who find themselves facing different tasks and circumstances as they work at NASA's Langley Research Center. Of the three it is Henson who perhaps gets the largest role of the three as Katherine Johnson, whose work becomes crucial to the success of early Mercury missions. Monáe's performance is solid as well, playing a woman struggling not just with the racial elements of the time but also institutionalized sexism as well. Yet out of the trio the best performance might come from Spencer who is an effective scene stealer throughout and does not surprise me in the least that she has received an Oscar nomination. Together, these three women (both as characters and as actresses) anchor the film solidly.
The supporting cast is solid but nowhere near as strong. Out of them, it is perhaps Kevin Costner as Space Task Group head Al Harrison (a character inspired by the real life Robert Gilruth) who stands out the best as an authoritative but sympathetic boss. Many of the performances though ranging from Jim Parsons' NASA engineer, Kirsten Dunst as the trio's immediate supervisor, Glen Powell as John Glenn , and Mahershala Ali as Jim Johnson all suffer not so much from their actual performances but from often feeling like little more than cardboard cut-outs filling out the film. Which is a shame in a way as some of them feel either superfluous or wasted in their roles with some such as Powell (who is way too young to be playing the forty year old astronaut) perhaps being mis-cast. For what they have to work with though, they do good work.
Outside of its leading trio, the film has other things to recomend it for. The film does an excellent job of taking the viewer back to the early part of the 1960s, a time of both optimism and yet still rooted firmly in the past. This is something the filmmakers work to their advantage with the costumes and sets especially feeling straight out of the period. The film makes strong use of archival footage over CGI effects to bring the actual missions to life though the mixture of the two together is well done so that it takes being familiar with the actual footage to spot the difference. The music score, despite coming from three quite different composers, suits the film well ranging from simple but highly effective orchestral pieces from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to songs by Pharrell Williams. Combined with the direction of Theodore Melfi, the film becomes a strong mix of elements that take the viewer into the period while also telling an engaging story.
None of which would be possible without the script. Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder are to be commended on taking a tale that takes in the early history of NASA, the math of space flight, the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, plus life in the 1960s south to create a script that not only is informative but engaging as well. They do so by injecting a good deal of humor into the film and I have to admit to being surprised by the amount of times I laughed over the course of the two hour running time but also tension. It says something that I heard sharp intakes of breath during the climatic sequence involving Glenn's mission as the film manages to make a tense sequence despite the audience presumably knowing that the astronaut lived into old age before passing away recently.
Yet the script, and the film itself truth be told, does tend to delve into unsubtle melodrama that undermines it at times. There are scenes that, even sitting in the cinema, feel entirely invented such as confrontation involving Katherine Johnson and her white colleagues and a scene that immediately follows it. The film is also guilty of some historical and technical errors as well from a newscaster's line of dialogue about the Mercury capsule “achieving an altitude of 116 miles per hour” to the lack of figures such as NASA rocket engineer Wernher Von Braun or condensing NASA's facilities down to the point that less knowledgeable viewers might think that Mercury mission control was in Virginia (it was really down in Florida). It is something that perhaps undermines the film somewhat though not to a fatal extent.
On the whole though, I can forgive the writers and the film for its occasional lack of subtlety and over-simplifications. Hidden Figures tells a little known story into a highly engaging way thanks to a combination of strong lead characters, first rate production values, and a script that takes what could have been a heady combination of historical events and infusing it with humor and tension. It is a fine example of what a historical drama can do: illuminate the past for a new generation and inspiring them.