Theodore Melfi's buoyant "Hidden Figures" is an old-fashioned feel-good movie with powerful contemporary relevance, spearheaded by a trio of unstoppable actresses playing black women who wouldn't be stopped.
Set in 1961 Virginia, the fact-based "Hidden Figures," adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's non-fiction book, is about three peripheral characters at NASA who made important contributions to the space race. Their workplace, at Langley, is segregated (with separate bathrooms and drinking fountains) and the offices are uniformly run by white males in suits.
But the talent and smarts of mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), budding engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and computer supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are becoming impossible to ignore.
Metaphors are all around. While rockets lift off, the women of "Hidden Figures" strive for their own upward movement. Arithmetic surrounds them, but they're continuously underestimated.
"That's NASA for you. Fast with rocket ships, slow with advancement," says Kirsten Dunst's manager.
Johnson is pulled out of a pool of computers (human ones, though a room-sized IBM makes a late appearance) and brought into the all-white rocket center to check the trajectories and calculations of the scientists rushing to match Sputnik and lift John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space. Their leader is Al Harrison (a fine, scene-chewing Kevin Costner), who compassionately responds to Johnson's rise.
But "Hidden Figures," punctuated by bright original songs by Pharrell Williams (who also collaborated with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch on the score), avoids many of the typical notes of a civil rights drama and keeps its focus on its three indomitable leads and their characters' private lives. Nobody would mistake it for a deeply complicated examination of segregation and no one will wonder if Melfi's film is going to end on a high note.
Instead, "Hidden Figures" is a straightforward, satisfying tale of triumph, full of warmth and crowd-pleasing scenes that its excellent cast lends spirit and verve to. Henson fierily delivers the film's big, cathartic moment, one that will surely resonate for audiences familiar with her plight. In such scenes, "Hidden Figures" feels both of the '60s and of now. These are figures that have often been hidden from movie screens, too.
But of the formidable threesome, it's Monae who most stands out. Following her role in Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" (whose Mahershala Ali also appears here, captivatingly as a military officer and love interest), the R&B singer has made an altogether arresting big-screen debut this fall. Regal, powerful and tender, she just might be a full-on Movie Star. The real rocket of "Hidden Figures" is Monae.
"Hidden Figures," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "thematic elements and some language." Running time: 126 minutes. Three stars out of four.
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