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Backstory of the space race

Hidden Figures film review. Story of unknown African-American women mathematicians in the early years of the NASA space programme

Charlie Masters

Reporter:

Charlie Masters

Space race

Hidden Figures (PG)
Running time 2hr 7mins
Rating: ****

THE Academy has this year opted for technical sophistication and elaborate storytelling; though Hidden Figures, 2017’s surprise contender, finds itself lacking in both departments, it compensates generously as an infectious, pleasantly traditional drama, bursting at the seams with warmth and heart. In this regard, it is probably the most instantly loveable of the Best Picture nominees (the terrific, highly-experimental Moonlight being at the other end of the spectrum), made with a definite family audience in mind. It takes as its basis a remarkable true story – that is, the contribution of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), three brilliant black scientists, to the space programme of segregation-era
America – and really runs with it, following its protagonists as they navigate all manner of mathematical conundrums and social snags.

The prejudice our heroines encounter is of a more mundane, white-collar ilk than Hollywood has recently accustomed us to, stark, painful and obnoxiously euphemistic. There’s no overt violence or racial epithets here; what we get instead are patronising stares in boardrooms, concerns over ‘hygiene’ and endless bureaucratic wrangling. Katherine comes into work one day to discover that her white colleagues have set aside a separate coffee pot for her; despite her genius, Mary is unable to study to become an engineer owing to NASA’s insistence that its employees attend a segregated school. The movie’s handling of all this injustice is sentimental, but in the best
possible way, never losing sight of its sincere intentions. Nor are the main cast mere political footballs at the filmmakers’ disposal – their personal lives make for a touching, often humorous watch.

Octavia Spencer has, of course, generated much of the movie’s awards buzz (and with good reason
– hers is a firecracker of a performance), but much else here is worthy of commendation at the very least. Kevin Costner gives his best in years as a space boss with a heart of gold – a sturdy, macho role that has strong echoes of his part in Oliver Stone’s JFK; meanwhile, Jim Parsons (aka The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon) brings his very specific skillset to proceedings. His work here will leave an impression, even if you do not exactly leave the cinema enamoured with him (bazinga!).

Crucially, the film knows and respects its subject matter. While there was undoubtedly the
temptation to branch out, to cast the struggles of our leading ladies against the wider political fallout of the early-1960s, the focus is overwhelmingly upon their home and work lives, insofar as such affairs existed in a vacuum; although we get a flavour of the turmoil – Mary’s husband, Levi (Aldis Hodge), is vocal in his sympathies for the civil rights movement – Hidden Figures is keen to tell its own, little-known, story and has little time for maladroit historical interludes à la 2013’s
The Butler. This is a vital, accessible yarn with a real sense of time, structure and purpose, and the performances are as tenacious and sassy as they come.

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