Like the calculating women whose lives it celebrates, "Hidden Figures" knows what it's doing.
A Grade-A Hollywood crowd-pleaser that happily celebrates its shameless moments, "Hidden Figures" can be teased but it can't be ignored. The film may not be restrained but stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are powerfully effective and its little-known true story is so flabbergasting that resistance is all but futile.
Before the word "computer" referred to a machine, it was a job description used for people, often women, who ran the numbers and did the heavy mathematical lifting serious science required.
As detailed in Margot Lee Shetterly's book (which veteran producer Donna Gigliotti purchased just from an outline), not only were a group of these African American women “computers” working in the segregated South, they turned out to be critical to getting America's 1960s space program off the ground.
Shetterly writes in the book's introduction that the never-before-told story "defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we knew about American history."
"Hidden Figures" never misses a chance to go for the heart-tugging and the obvious as scripted by Allison Schroeder and directed by Theodore Melfi, a veteran commercial director who corralled Bill Murray in "St. Vincent." But, frankly, if the film's aesthetic standards were more rigorous, the end product might not be as out-and-out effective as the result undeniably is here.
"Hidden Figures" begins with a brief 1926 prologue introducing us to a young black girl who is a math prodigy inspiring awe in all who know her. "I've never seen," a teacher tells her parents, "a mind like your daughter has."
Thirty-five years later we meet that girl as the adult Katherine Johnson, one of three women carpooling to work at NASA's Langley Memorial Research Lab in Hampton, Va. Or at least trying to: Their sturdy Chevrolet has broken down.
Momentarily stranded, the three women soon reveal their core personalities. Johnson (Henson), is still the brainy one, a complete whiz with numbers. Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) is the practical one, looking under the hood to see what the problem is. Mary Jackson (Monáe), momentarily occupied with her lipstick, is charismatic and ambitious.
These three are part of what is known at Langley as the West Computing section, a group of some 20 mathematicians who were all African American women. As Jeff Nichols' film "Loving" made clear this year, Virginia in 1961 was as segregated as any state in the Deep South. These women could not eat in the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains or even, as brazenly becomes a major plot point, use the same restrooms as their white colleagues.
Though they all work at Langley, each of the three has a different job challenge and a different way they have to contend with the inescapable racism of the time and place. Super-capable Vaughan, for instance, wants to be made a supervisor, but NASA is dragging its feet and her white boss Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) is not going out of her way to help.
Jackson wants to become an engineer, and despite how bleak her chances are (no African American woman has achieved that title to date) she is determined to make the attempt.
The most interesting trajectory, so to speak, turns out to be Johnson's. NASA is in a dog-eat-dog race with the Soviets to put people into space, and the man in charge of the Space Task Group, crusty Al Harrison (a composite figure deftly played by Kevin Costner), is a tough nut known to eat computers for lunch.
Out of desperation as much as anything else, Johnson is given a shot at a place on his staff, and though we know that she is as much of a wizard as Albus Dumbledore, "Hidden Figures" milks the situation for all its worth.
"Hidden Figures" also provides glimpses of the personal lives of its characters. Mary, for instance, is married to the civil rights firebrand Levi (Aldis Hodge), who initially does not see her struggles as significant. Johnson, for her part, a widow raising three daughters, catches the eye of Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, a star, like Monáe, of "Moonlight"), a good man who discovers that she is more impressive than he realized.
Understandably excited to be playing significant women, the trio of lead actresses are uniformly excellent, but the film's script is structured to make Henson the first among equals, and she takes advantage of her opportunities.
She has a showstopping speech (hint: it involves those bathrooms) and the actress' ability to put enormously complex equations on a huge chalkboard is impressive because the numbers and symbols had to be faultlessly memorized. The real Katherine Johnson, still alive and vibrant at age 98 and a recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, couldn’t have done it any better.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and some language
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: In general release