As inspiring as the red glare of rockets heading into space, this huge-hearted crowd-pleaser has a sophisticated idea running through it: by and large, busy scientists don’t have time for racism or sexism. So it proved at Virginia’s Langley Research Center when, at the height of the 1960s space race (would ‘Space Race’ have been a better title?), African-American female mathletes were promoted to positions of critical importance to the Mercury programme, years before the flowering of the civil rights era.
‘Hidden Figures’ takes this underreported chapter of black history and makes it big, overplaying an already powerful scenario. Teetering bespectacled whiz Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) finds herself correcting the calculations of scowling white men, while aspiring supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) learns computer language in her spare time, and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) campaigns to attend college classes. They’re a trio of incredibly likeable nerds. If the movie puts them on equal footing with the astronauts and capsule designers themselves, it’s a corrective that can be forgiven.
In its best moments, ‘Hidden Figures’ supplies the same work-the-problem thrills of ‘Apollo 13’ (if not the reach-for-the-stars rapture of ‘The Right Stuff’), and benefits enormously from Kevin Costner in full lefty righteous-rage mode as the Nasa director who smashes the sign off a segregated bathroom: ‘Here at Nasa, we all pee the same colour!’ To get to these stand-up-and-cheer moments, though, you have to endure a comic montage to an anachronistic Pharrell Williams song called ‘Runnin’’ and several painfully Aaron Sorkin-esque verbal showdowns. The film aims for the stars but might have gone stratospheric if it cooled its jets ever so slightly.