Hidden Figures is just good enough that I wish it were better. The film, fictionalized from Margot Lee Shetterly’s recently released history book of the same name, digs into the sadly under-shared story of the African-American women who were centrally involved in the monumentally difficulty scientific and mathematic work that drove the U.S. space program in the nineteen-sixties. In a way, it’s satisfying that the film is stodgily constructed and strangely facile in its examination of how the obvious talents of these women needed to scramble around the confining, casually bigoted norms of the era. In the field of Hollywood storytelling, nothing could be more validating that shoving truth into the shape of familiar narrative machinery.
The film essentially presents three parallel story threads. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a uniquely brilliant mathematician (or a “computer,” in the parlance of NASA at the time) who is recruited to join the team, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), that’s charged with besting the almost impossible challenge of getting men into orbit around the planet and, more problematically, bringing them back again. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is another computer, though one who correctly determines that her longterm career longevity is dependent on mastering the incoming device of the same name, recently installed by IBM, even though they haven’t quite determined how to make it work yet. And Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is an aspiring engineer whose ability to pursue her education is severely compromised by segregation laws that Virginia is stubbornly clinging to in defiance of emerging federal dictates.
The actors give it their all, but the script is limiting. Co-credited to director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, it skates across its various theses without quite exploring them as fully as is merited. This is in part because the film tries to do too much, dropping in scenes of distress in the Civil Rights Movement to underline points that have already been made far more effectively with the mass of indignities the women face in their NASA workplace. Other elements comes across as so obligatory that even the filmmakers exhibit only the barest interest in them, such as the romance between Katherine and a returning military man (Mahershala Ali). At least the vibrant shared charisma of Henson and Ali nearly salvages it.
Despite its shortcomings, Hidden Figures is more satisfying than not. There’s a reason that familiar narrative machinery is returned to again and again. There’s a deeply embedded pleasure in watching underestimated people triumph, especially when they’re somehow able to transcend systematic oppression. If Melfi’s direction sometimes seems a little clumsy, he also brings a welcome brisk assurance to key scenes, particularly those that show the characters engaged in rigorous problem-solving. So I might want Hidden Figures. Given the deep value in bringing the story of these women to a larger audience, it might be all right for it to be good enough.