I recently had a conversation with an art teacher in which I said there was no such thing as a bad production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I argued that the story is so good it doesn't matter who is directing or how it's performed, you always come away having enjoyed yourself. I've seen many versions of AMND over the years and I've always come away thinking "that was decent". You'd have to really work hard to make AMND poorly.
Hidden Figures, released in the UK this weekend, is very much the same. The story is so inspiring and heartwarming it would't matter who made it. As it happens, the film really is great in its own right, but even if it hadn't been I'd probably still encourage you to see it, just because it's a story worth hearing.
If you've not come across the premise, Hidden Figures tells the true story of a group of black women working at NASA during the early sixties, mainly focusing on the real-life Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P Henson). This was a time when segregation was still a part of everyday life and women were actively discouraged from careers in STEM. These women were isolated in a way almost nobody else was. Discriminated against by white women because they were black, discriminated against by black men because they were women, and treated as essentially worthless by everyone else. You begin to realise how difficult it must have been to be a black woman in the 1960s (something I have very little experience of).
Nevertheless, Goble's mathematical brilliance led to her becoming a key figure in calculating John Glenn's flight trajectories as well as implementing mathematical techniques still used by NASA today. It's a story of triumph in the face of adversity, defying gender stereotypes, overcoming racial prejudice and...it has spaceships! What's not to like?
Taraji P Henson is superb as Goble (as you’d expect), Octavia Spencer shines with her usual underplayed comic timing as the computer programmer Dorothy Vaughn and they are surrounded by an excellent supporting cast including Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons. It’s nicely written too, with the characters' personal lives playing as minor subplots to the work at NASA. It’s hard to make a gripping film in which astrophysical equations are a central part of the story but Hidden Figures does so admirably.
It has to be said the film does Hollywood-ise occasionally and dramatises some of the events. There’s also a couple of scenes where Jim Parson’s character explains Newton’s first law of motion to NASA engineers (if you don't know Newton's laws, why are you working at NASA?). However, I think moments like this are not only acceptible in a movie like this, they are necessary.
When we go to the movies we are usually expecting to be entertained. The only problem is that real life doesn't fit into three-act structures lasting two hours with a Hans Zimmer soundtrack. Real life doesn't have witty dialogue and it's often messy - even boring. As a result, I think most audiences recognise that a "true-story" on film is going to take a few liberties with reality, not because it wants to lie but because stories are ordered; real life is not.
So while Hidden Figures manipulates the timelines a bit and creates one or two events which never happened, the message of the movie is clear. There was rampant racism and sexism in America throughout the 1960s, NASA did make an effort to try and overcome it, but it wasn't an easy transition, particularly for the brave women who stuck by their intellectual guns throughout.
So yes, the film isn't spot-on in terms of accuracy but if that's what you're expecting you're missing the point. It's not a documentary, it's a movie. If you watch this film you're going to be moved. It’s a film set in the world of rocket Science but there’s more here than just differential equations and hyperbolic geometry, it’s a human story and I'm always in favour of humanising Scientists, particularly those who are under-represented and undervalued.
For me, the most powerful bit in the movie is something Kevin Costner's character (a mixture of two real people: Al Harrison and Rob Gilruth) says: "we all get to the peak together or we don't get there at all!" It's one of the key phrases in the trailer and it summarises the drive of the film perfectly. There is an irony in what he's saying of course because the film's story is kicked off by the successful launch of a Russian spy satellite i.e. NASA's activity is spurred by rivalry, making his statement inclusive, in a divisive political environment. The reality is that NASA's funding may have come from national pride, but NASA's heart has always been in the right place, doing amazing things for the benefit of humanity.
The message here, the one I chose to take away, is that while referring to the inclusion of black women in the space program, his words can be taken in a much broader context: when we set up barriers or walls between groups of people we don't make progress. We miss out on things. We are better when we're united. I think that's a pretty important message for the world to hear right now. Go see Hidden Figures.
I love science, let me tell you why.