Hidden Figures Review!

Jondee here at West Area Computers,

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I saw the movie’s poster last year and was just fascinated by it, I have never heard about these remarkable women, then again history has a way of brushing away the extraordinary. The Space Race was never better depicted than here, the tension of the Russian accomplishments and the American failure to make the math work. This is the other part of the story, the math, so essential to making a space flight possible. These are the women behind it. The film is directed and co-written by Theodore Melfi who also directed St. Vincent (2014). Allison Schroeder is his co-writer based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly with the same title as the film. I wanted to run out and buy the book to get the full story on these ladies. It is a difficult construction to follow three women (and their departments) with the Space Race, their personal lives, and struggle to get through the racism and sexism of the day. I will say that I know a few things about the astronauts, but not the details of the actual missions. So there is incredible tension even if the outcome might be known, this was more apparent than in other films like Apollo 13 (1995) and The Right Stuff (1983). The film begins in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1926 with a little girl (Lidya Jewett), Katherine Gobel, counting acorns on the road working out prime numbers. Her parents want to move up the girl from the sixth grade into a scholarship. We also see the girl with glasses working out a complex equation on the school board in front of the stunned, older students. We can see the support of family an the community to bring Katherine to her full potential. Love it, I wanted this to be the entire film. Then, we get the current time, at a road where there is a broken down car in Hampton, Virginia, 1961.

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Katherine, now played as an adult by Taraji P. Henson, stares out the window. She of course is known for playing Cookie Lyon on Empire, but this is so much a stronger part, I first took notice of her in the Person of Interest show.  This is a perfect role for Henson, she has to have the dreamer, the intellect, and just the strength to weather all of the trials she goes through professionally and personally. Leaning against the trunk is Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monae. I know her from her singing, which is a musical stylist blending so many sounds, but I think she wanted to focus here as an actor and not a singer which is kinda sad not having a song on the film’s soundtrack. Her part is as a young mathematician frustrated at the opportunities, but also confidently twirling through them. The woman who is working the hardest there though is Octavia Spencer who plays Dorothy Vaughn. She is busy underneath the car working to re-start it. Spencer is a dream, she is the leader of their group, and knows Katherine’s brilliant mind. All of them are essential to every part of making the calculations. Mary is about to hitchhike, but a police car pulls up. They show their identification working at Langley for NASA. It is explained in the book that during World War II, these women were math teachers who found jobs that eventually led to Langley. The officer hates the Russians more and ends up giving them an escort to Langley. Then, we get a rocket being tracked by NASA under the direction of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison played by Kevin Costner. He has a great role as a director who is hard pressed to get ahead in the Space Race, but the logistics are frustrating and even more is the barriers that impede Katherine. At a staff meeting after watching the dog and mannequin used in the Russian flight, the lead engineer, Paul Stafford cautions hasty conclusions. He is played by Jim Parsons, of course, from the Big Bang Theory. This film has him as the villain trying dismissively turning away from Katherine and her work. Sheldon would not approve. The group walks past an empty room that will hold something called an IBM computer. The future is coming!

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Back at West Area Computers, in the Colored Room, Dorothy is giving out assignments.  In walks,Vivian Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst, who has absolute contempt for them. She needs a person who knows analytical geometry for the Space Group, Dorothy recommends Katherine. Dorothy rushes to ask about being a supervisor for the colored group, but Vivian said the position will not be filled. Mary goes to see the capsule, touches it, before an alarm sounds for the test.  Her boss, Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), wants her to be an engineer and says that he is a Polish Jew who managed to get his position. Vivian walks Katherine over to the Space Task Group, a new room filled with desks and men in dress shirts and ties. Katherine goes to her desk with many stares. Harrison finds his new computer, Katherine, and has her check some coordinates and also to check everyone’s work. He announces to everyone that no one will have problems getting their work checked. This is the type of leadership that he instills, he doesn’t want problems, whatever the cause, it’s solutions. Katherine asks Ruth (Kimberly Quinn), the assistant about the ladies room, but there is none in the building for her, so she has to run a mile to the West Area Computers building. This goes through much of the film! Harrison throws away Katherine’s work because it’s obsolete. He tells her that he needs someone who looks beyond the numbers. Katherine returns home to see her daughters. At church, the pastor notes Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) who has returned with the National Guard. At the lunch afterwards, Mary waves over Johnson and he takes a walk with her, but upsets her with a remark about women working at the space program. She replies that there are many talented women, there “Not because we wear skirts, it’s because we wear glasses.” Love that line! All of the personnel line up to meet the astronauts. The one that goes to meet and shake hands Katherine’s group is John Glenn (Glen Powell). He has the classic Midwestern looks and acknowledges he needs their calculations to make it into space. The effects shots of space flight are impressive, beautiful, even after so many other films.  NASA wants the public to be energized by its work, there is no better way than this film. More scientists and astronauts need to promote it. Every person should see this important film. Five Cartesian coordinate systems out of Five!

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