Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae
Directed by: Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”)
Written by: Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) and Allison Schroeder (debut)
Films based on historical events have a tendency to feel like well-crafted museum exhibits, in that they politely lead you from beginning to end, illuminating certain events along the way without affecting your emotional state too much one way or the other. It’s a perfectly pleasant experience and you learn some stuff, sure, but you can feel yourself being ushered through all points along the way, the velvet ropes mentally brushing up against you as it unfurls. “Hidden Figures,” the true to life tale of three African-American women instrumental in the success of NASA’s early space flight, is a pleasant, heartwarming, and effective enough. These women are inspirational, no doubt, but by the time the film ends, it lacks a resonance strong enough to differentiate itself from the well-trodden genre.
Set in the early days of the space race at NASA’s Langley campus in the 1960s, “Hidden Figures” follows a trio of genius-level black women at a time when two of those three traits were detrimental to a career in literal rocket science. Math savant Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) works with Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) as “computers” in the colored-only wing at a NASA. When a position opens up to work on the trajectory calculations that will put Americans in space, Goble ends up working under mathematicians Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The men are initially reluctant to trust Goble’s work (her being a black woman and all), but begin to warm to her after charming, pioneering astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) gives Goble’s work his complete and total trust.
Meanwhile, Vaughan verbally spars with by-the-book supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) about advancing her position while secretly learning to work with the mysterious new IBM computer. Also, Jackson is eager to become an engineer, but NASA regulations require engineers to take extension courses at a local school—a school that remains segregated even after federal order. So in order to attend, Jackson must seek a court injunction to even begin to advance her career.
Fine performances abound in “Hidden Figures,” but nothing stands out, except that Spencer and Monae seem to have been shorted in the story department—they feel like footnotes to Henson’s character. Noticeably, however, all of the likable actors—Costner, Parsons and Dunst—in parts that are traditionally more villainous in Civil Rights-era historical films are given relatively bland, inert roles. Maybe it’s all true, sure, but it all feels a little too safe, right down to the climax cribbed from “Apollo 13,” one of the safest movies ever made. There’s never a doubt where “Hidden Figures” is going to splash down.