If the primary aspiration of Hidden Figures is to unveil a worthwhile slice of history about the American space program, then its effort to shape that story into a slick crowd-pleaser ranks a close second.
The film accomplishes both goals for the most part, taking a straightforward approach that lacks subtlety in chronicling the unheralded contributions during the early days of NASA by a group of female mathematicians whose beautiful minds were overshadowed by their skin color.
It takes us back to the tense Cold War times when the United States and the Soviet Union were each scrambling to put a man into space. This story takes place at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia, where a group of black women are sequestered in a building away from the more prominent math prodigies.
Specifically, the film focuses on three of those women who are part of the same carpool: Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is tabbed by the director of the Space Task Group (Kevin Costner) to taken a more prominent role in the development of a flight plan for the space flight helmed by John Glenn in 1962.
Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) is more outspoken and self-assured in her efforts to gain more recognition for her timid colleagues, and in seeking opportunities for them. Mary (Janelle Monae) is talented and persuasive.
Fortunately, the approach of director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), who also co-wrote the screenplay, is more gently comedic than strident and heavy-handed. The film tackles more than just racial barriers, but issues of gender politics, artificial intelligence, and the basics of the space race.
The period re-creation is solid, and so are the performances. The film doesn’t dumb down or shortchange the math by throwing around plenty of convincing lingo, even if it oversimplifies some of the character dynamics and strains to become inspirational.
On a broader scale, as the title suggests, it’s a heartfelt tribute to those who toil behind the scenes in anonymity and don’t get proper recognition, for whatever reason.
In this case, amid the embellishments that threaten to undermine their accomplishments and might not put their influence in the proper context, the film shines a worthy spotlight on its dignified and unassuming heroes. Hidden Figures is a valuable history lesson with plenty of built-in drama that eventually takes off.