Movie Review: Hidden Figures   January 14th, 2017

I took a break from looking at dystopian futures to watch “Hidden Figures” a story from the promising and tumultuous time in history. The film chronicles three African-American women, working as “human computers” at their jobs providing NASA with rocket trajectory calculations in the beginning of the 1960s, the early days of the space race. As with all films based on true stories, it’s hard to know what is actual history and what is narrative license.

Certainly the work and achievements of Katherine G. Johnson (mathematician), Mary Jackson (engineer) and Dorothy Vaughan (supervisor and programmer of IBM electronic computers) are well known. It’s never sure how many of the details filling in between the facts are genuine or for story. I would like to the book the film was inspired on at some point to find out more of the picture.

Even understanding that history and narrative are usually different animals, and taking that into account. The film is interesting, engaging and entertaining. Besides the human interest and Civil Rights achievements, I also enjoyed seeing a world where space-flight mathematics are carried out on paper and blackboards, as the digital age and the first IBM computers were emerging on the scene. At one point Dorothy Vaughan happens upon a FORTRAN book and that made me smile, remembering my time using the language back in engineering school.

At times the film feels jovial in the face of the daily reminders of dealing with segregation, and in places the tone feels slightly off, but then again that conscious decision keeps the film from being dark and brooding. The mood is upbeat and the story instead focuses on the themes of achievements and progress. Confrontations happen, then the plot moves on. There are both allies and adversaries shown, and while things might be oversimplified for use of plot efficiency, the characters are all portrayed with some nuance and they feel human rather than as caricatures.

The film also shows a few instances where people end up rethinking the status quo, not from moral arguments, but from personal interactions or tangential experiences. Director Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, doesn’t desegregate the bathrooms because it’s the just thing to do, he does it because it’s stupid and inefficient, and getting the launch and landing calculations completed are more important. I don’t know if those events actually played out as told, but it rings true to human nature.

Overall the pacing is snappy and the plot is tight, with the narrative moving between the characters’ personal and work lives as well as following NASA’s projects’ missions. The film makes good use of archival news footage for rocket launches added along the way, culminating in John Glenn’s historic Mercury 7 flight, with a familiar credits montage depicting what happens in the women’s careers to show the rest of the story.

This entry was posted on Saturday, January 14th, 2017 at 6:58 pm and is filed under Movies and TV. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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