The corny, but powerful, "Hidden Figures" is the far right's worst nightmare: Three strong, brilliant black women doing it for themselves by forcing a racist, sexist government agency to swallow a little Jim Crow in order to take America to the stars and back. It's a joyous tale that makes you sad to think that it took an unreasonable 56 years to finally bring their heroic stories to the screen. But then Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson aren't the sort to seek accolades. They were too busy trailblazing as integral parts of our nation's finest achievement: The space program.
Without them, John Glenn would have likely ended up a crispy critter upon reentry from his historic flight aboard Friendship 7 and Neil Armstrong would never have taken his giant leap for mankind. Yet, those men are celebrated, and the African-American women who played significant roles in putting them on those pedestals might well have been doomed to obscurity if Margot Lee Shetterly not championed their legacy with her recently published biography "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race." Had Shetterly not been the daughter of one of the women's colleagues at NASA-Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the ladies would have likely remained in anonymity. Even at that, two of the three pioneers didn't live to see the book or this terrific movie come to fruition. But now it's here, and it's something to cherish, an old-fashioned testament to drive and ingenuity fueled by superb performances by Octavia Spencer ("The Help") as computer-programmer Vaughan, Janelle Monae ("Moonlight") as budding-engineer Jackson and a never-better Taraji P. Henson ("Empire") as ace mathematician Johnson.
Even with a generous run-time of 127 minutes, you can't get enough of these three charismatic actresses, as they pour all their energy into doing justice to the brave, remarkable women they're portraying. That's especially true of Henson, whose passion for the project can be felt throughout, but particularly in the film's best scene when the usually shy and quiet Johnson erupts on her white, male colleagues after she's had enough to being forced to drink from the "colored" coffee pot and trek a half-mile to and from the colored restroom on the far side of the segregated Langley complex. You feel her anger and share it. You also cheer when Johnson repeatedly proves she's the smartest person in the room, cranking out flight trajectories like she's compiling a grocery list.
While Henson clearly scored the plum role, Spencer does the most with what little she has to work with as a financially strapped single mother who never wastes an opportunity to let her racist superior (Kirsten Dunst) know that she's doing the work of a supervisor in overseeing Langley's group of black "computers" (the term for the women hired to check the math work of the engineers) but not getting a supervisor's pay. Same for Monae, even better here than in her fine work in "Moonlight." She's assigned to work on the construct of the Mercury capsule's heat shield, but is handcuffed because she can't get an upgrade on her engineering degree because the University of Virginia doesn't allow blacks to take extension courses at Hampton High School.
Director Ted Melfi ("St. Vincent"), who also wrote the script with an assist from Allison Schroeder, does a fine job of juggling each individual's story and giving his actresses plenty of room to flesh out their characters in a deeply human way. Where he and the film fall a tad short is in the shoehorning of bits and pieces of each woman's home life: The widowed Johnson dipping her toe back in the dating pool with a handsome military officer ("Moonlight's" Mahershala Ali) and Jackson debating with her hubby ("Straight Outta Compton's" Aldis Hodge) over it being proper to let their children see the TV news and its nightly reports on Southern blacks being subjected to racial violence.
All that is good, and it's something we want to know about, but to do justice to the stories of their home lives, you really need the time and expanse of a miniseries. Besides, it's watching these women at work, regularly smashing the perceptions of what white America expects from them that gets our juices flowing. Like the cathartic high we get from Johnson repeatedly getting the upper hand on her immediate supervisor (Jim Parsons doing subtle bigotry well), indignant that a black woman is better than him at calculating trajectories. They scrap and trade passive-aggressive insults so often, you half expect them to fall in love.
It's also fun to see John Glenn (a miscast Glen Powell with a full head of hair) as Johnson's biggest cheerleader; understandable since it's her he's trusting to get him back safely from space with her "go, or no-go" calculations. Rightly, the film focuses on the lead up to his flight in February 1962, when he became the first American to orbit the Earth. But the film also keenly taps into those old fears that if we don't win the space race, we could all end up on the wrong end of a Soviet nuclear missile. It's a very real prospect that constantly eats at Al Harrison, the head of the Langley engineering department, as he implores his underlings to look at what they're doing as not just a science project, but a requirement to save all humanity. He's played by Kevin Costner, and it's simply the best work he's done in years, if not ever. He's the film's rock; its dad, who must continually step in when his "kids" aren't treating each other with the dignity and respect they deserve. He also gets to utter the film's best line when after taking a sledgehammer to the building's "whites only" restroom sign, declares: "Here at NASA, we all pee the same color." It's corny and trite, much like the movie. But it's an inarguable truth, just like its underlying meaning that great things can only be achieved when everyone is working together without regard for race, color or gender. It's what made America great then; and hopefully will someday again.
Cast includes Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst.
(PG for thematic elements and some language.)