Hidden Figures, opening Sunday, is as close to a Christmas miracle as Hollywood could possibly create.
A feel-good family dramedy emboldened by a lighthearted touch of black girl power, it celebrates African American female mathematicians at NASA who helped America win the race to the moon.
The movie was adapted from the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. It stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe as the mathematicians, and Kevin Costner as their driven project leader.
The miracle lies in how the film gently touches on some of the most intractable social problems addressed by the civil rights movement, while maintaining an infectiously buoyant vibe – not to mention a bouncy soundtrack.
Hans Zimmer’s score is enlivened by a selection of R&B songs written by Hidden Figures co-producer Pharrell Williams, featuring vocals by Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, and costar Monáe.
Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) keeps things moving at a healthy clip. His movie sometimes serves up history with too heavy a sprinkling of fairy dust, but the cast members give such winning performances that one tends to overlook the relentless optimism.
That’s especially true of Henson (Empire), who is hands-down the best thing Hidden Figures has going for it.
She stars as Katherine Johnson, the brightest of the three women whose stories anchor the film. A child prodigy from a poor family, she overcame great odds to earn advanced degrees in mathematics and physics. But the best job she could land at NASA was as a "computer."
That’s the pre-computer-age term for a skilled but low-level position crunching numbers for the NASA researchers – all white males – who did the creative work.
One of more than a dozen African American women working as NASA computers, Katherine is best friends with fellow numbers-crunchers Mary Jackson (Monáe), who dreams of joining the team of head engineer Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), and Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), who would go on to become an expert in NASA's IBM computers.
Kirsten Dunst plays their snooty racist boss. Costner is the passionate scientist Al Harrison, who's so rattled by the Soviet Union's lead in the space race that he drives his team with maniacal fervor.
Hidden Figures offers a nicely balanced portrait of the three women’s professional and personal lives. It opens in the early 1960s, when Project Mercury was still working to put a man into Earth orbit. It builds momentum when Katherine is taken out of the computer pool and assigned to work with Harrison’s Mercury team, where she quickly outshines the men she’s there to assist.
The movie also chronicles how Mary and Dorothy progress in their chosen specializations. It suggests that when it comes to civil rights, necessity is the mother of progress: The women win a measure of recognition and respect because their work is indispensable to Mercury.
There are a few hokey scenes here: Costner smashing up the “for colored women” bathroom sign, Dunst getting all weepy-eyed when her consciousness is raised about the worth of black women, mother-hen Dorothy leading a clutch of black women to take over the new IBM computer room.
Hidden Figures works because it wisely injects humor into these pump-your-fist-in-the-air moments.
The film also features a wonderful supporting cast, including Glen Powell (Scream Queens) as the young John Glenn, Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) as an Army colonel who woos Katherine, and Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) as Mary’s husband, a civil rights activist given to angry tirades.
Its positive message about education, the value of hard work, and the power of social commitment make it a must-see for parents and kids alike.