The 20th century NASA Space Race which began as a fierce competition between North America and the Soviet Union to become the dominant force in spaceflight travel capabilities is an endlessly fascinating chapter in American history and one of my favorite subjects for dramatization in film. Ever since seeing Philip Kaufman’s three-hour epic The Right Stuff, which chronicled virtually every aspect of the sheer endurance tests, hardships and triumphs of the Space Race from beginning to end, I’ve eagerly eaten up everything and anything concerning the subject. Equally compelling are Al Reinart’s indelible Apollo 11 documentary For All Mankind as well as Ron Howard’s dramatization of the ill-fated and near catastrophic Apollo 13 mission for the moon.
Usually in these films we only see the Space Race from the astronauts’ point of view with some emphasis on the mathematical, mission control and scientific aspects of the heroic spaceflights. Rarely however do we get the complexity of the numerical and logical aspects integral to making these spaceflights happen at all with all the troubleshooting, difficulties and setbacks encountered with rocket testing, capsule testing and problems arising during the flight itself. The Right Stuff gave a pretty thoroughly comprehensive dissection of the events that took place during the Space Race and yet as the new Theodore Melfi film Hidden Figures reveals, there was far more to the story than we previously imagined.
Based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures tells the story of African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji B. Henson) and her two colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who worked in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center. Unbeknownst to many until November 16, 2015 when Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, these women played an integral role in the successful calculation and planning of astronaut John Glenn’s spaceflight as the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. Despite fighting an uphill battle against prejudices and segregations held at the time, these three women triumphed and without their valiant efforts, John Glenn’s spaceflight might not have happened at all.
Although the film is designed as something of a crowd pleaser and tends to gloss over the personal lives of the three women with some emphasis on the arduous journey against the prejudices they endured on a daily basis, overall Hidden Figures is a splendid story long overdue to be told on the silver screen. Performances across the board are strong with Henson as the headstrong and determined genius whose calculations later made the 1969 Apollo 11 mission possible. Always dependably good is Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group, who finds himself in the crossfire of meeting NASA’s demands while shepherding Katherine Johnson to her single-minded goal of solving the mathematical riddles key to making the spaceflights a reality. Visually, director Melfi does a solid job recreating the era although some of the CGI recreations unfortunately display some of the budgetary limitations of the project and the score by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch (yes, three composers worked on Hidden Figures) is a bit of a smorgasbord between Zimmer’s score for Interstellar intermingled with…Pharrell.
Despite being a bit glossier than the far denser package Philip Kaufman delivered in 1983, Hidden Figures tells an important chapter in American history that’s needed to be told for decades. A more technically skillful director might have handled the effects sequences better and a longer running time might have allowed for the trio’s personal lives to be fleshed out more, but what’s here is pretty well done for the most part. At the end I felt I had learned something new about the Space Race that is only getting the attention it deserves now. Some of the execution is a bit schmaltzy but I didn’t mind. Critics might be quick to compare it to The Help for the emphasis on the segregation and prejudices of the time, but I myself found it to be a solid companion piece to The Right Stuff.
- Andrew Kotwicki