Okay, so I’m late to the party. Sue me. (Don’t actually do that. And don’t arrest me, please.) Hidden Figures came out on Christmas last year (a ridiculous statement that makes 2016 sound more than 25 days past), racked up three Academy Award nominations while losing two Golden Globe categories, and yet I still failed to find time to see it.
I rectified that mistake yesterday and, well, shit. That’s one hell of a movie. I’m still trying to digest all the ways it is a success and it’s damn near impossible. It’s poignant, relevant, and potent in every way it wants and need to be, especially given current US and international developments where the world is ostensibly at the dangerous whims of a lying child with disproportionately tiny hands and giant hair. There’s perhaps no other time when the themes of this movie would be as impactful and purposeful as today. (Well, and still be made.)
The most easily digestible and entertaining part of the film is that it’s just joyous. It’s celebratory. The bond between these three (real-life) African-American NASA computers in the early 1960s—yes, right in the midst of the space race between America and the Soviet Union as well as the rising civil rights movement—is real and powerful. They’re as deeply friends as they are brilliant and upstanding and assertive. And it’s not in spite of their gender and race but rather because of their gender and race.
That’s an important distinction that many other seemingly politically infused stories get wrong. One wrong move, and this would have been another hokey bubble piece that would have only garnered viewers months after theatrical release on FX some cold, uninviting Friday night. It dodges a bullet that I so deeply feared it would have otherwise taken straight in the chest.
It very easily could have indulged in a modernized noble savage trope or even a mighty whitey, but it doesn’t. These women aren’t waiting for a rescue; they are pushing back up past their ceiling to where everyone else lives. There are a few scenes of white faux nobility, but it’s more used as a contrast to superficial integration and as a commentary on how diversity requires a community to utilize it as a foundation for something greater.
It recognizes (mostly) every part of the equation so that it can foist them up on its shoulders while still condemning them for even being necessary, and it does so across a wide and pertinent spectrum. These women suffer under the lacking mores and missing virtues of gender inequality, systemic racism, diversity in STEM fields, and some patriotism just for good measure. And all of this is apparent from the very first scene—seriously, the very first scene—and doesn’t let go.
You also can’t overstate how perfect a canvas this is for three tremendous lead actors. Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Goble, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson all deliver award-worthy performances. Their shifts between joy and sadness and anger are rapid and deft. You can see these changes develop naturally and become informed by their acting rather than being dictated by what the scene requires. From the get-go, who wouldn’t want to be friends with them? Sassy, smart, ambitious, unrelenting. These three actors manage to be all that and more.
There’s also Kirsten Dunst as Vivian Mitchell, a pitch-perfect representation of what a passive bystander looks like in supporting racism. (And my gosh, there’s one exchange between her and Spencer’s Dorothy that is just absolutely gutting.) Kevin Costner as Al Harrison is also a necessary piece to the puzzle. He’s not much of a character, per se, as he doesn’t do any growing or learning, but he operates fantastically in the machine as an integral component that makes it all function smoothly. He makes one particular revelation, actually, that culminates in a great and triumphant scene, which follows a bitterly heartbreaking one, as the rhythm of the film is want to do.
And special shoutout to Glen Powell as John Glenn; it takes a special person to play progressively and impeccably charming the way he does. But the core of the film—the fundaments that make it all tick—is the story of these three women, now legendary in their contributions to the space race, science, and American history. The film doesn’t try to do anything we haven’t see before, but it also shouldn’t have to. What it has to work with is dense enough already that just the fact that it didn’t crumble is an achievement enough. But it doesn’t just not fall.
It rockets straight to the stars.