Very few films were made until now about the beginnings of the American space program, and I am wondering why. Here is a true American saga that took place at a time that is still remembered by many of us. It’s a story with famous and anonymous heroes, a story that begins with the dismay and fear caused by the Soviets taking early lead in the race to space (with the launching of the Sputnik and with sending the first man in space) and ends in triumph with the Apollo program and the moon landings. And yet, Hollywood still has to approach the period and make the movies about this great story and the men that made it possible. Hidden Figures only partly fills some of this gap, looking at a little known aspect of the first space programs, from a specific perspective, with the emphasis on an unexpected and unknown aspect – the racial prejudice that faced and had to be overcome by the first Afro-American contributors to the program. It tells the story of (until now) little known heroes who not only were ‘colored’ but also all happened to be women.
Hidden Figures is a fiction film based on the nonfiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, written by historian Margot Lee Shetterly. The script authors and director Theodore Melfi where extremely careful in the details, from dialogues that aim to be as close to reality as they are remembered by the heroes who lived the period (including apparently a scene that looks very Hollywood-like but apparently did happen, with John Glenn on the launching ramp of the very first flight asking for the computations to be checked by ‘the girl’ he met in the preparation meetings room) to details about how buildings, corridors, rooms, parking lots looked at the NASA compounds in Virginia. What is shocking today especially from a non-American perspective is the extent to which segregation and racial discrimination was part of life and of the books of laws a little more than half a century ago, in the country that was leading the democracy block in its fight against Communism, and was working to send its first men to space.
Yet, the ‘inspirational’ tone dominates the film, and the viewer has the feeling that almost every fact, action, or spoken dialog is in line with the point that the film aims to make. A more realistic or neutral approach would have made the message more convincing IMO. I did like the characters development, the fact that three women who are the lead characters in the film have each her own personality, talents, way of overcoming prejudice. The three actresses are Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe and I hope to see them in more (good) movies ahead. Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst are cast in supporting roles and they do a good job. Hidden Figures is a solid and in some places emotional film, but cannot break the convention of genre and style that it seems that the authors imposed on themselves.