Mathematics seems to be one of the hardest subjects for filmmakers to tackle. It’s relatively easy to show the audience that a character is incredibly gifted at music or sports, but how do you show that a character is good at math? Darren Aronofsky pulled off that trick in his 1998 debut π, but since most movies aren’t made by Aronofsky, most of them fail at this: Good Will Hunting, A Beautiful Mind, Proof. So often these films are reduced to having actors scribble algebra and calculus symbols on a blackboard, which might as well be ancient Sanskrit for all they mean to a general audience. That failure also plagues Hidden Figures, which expands to Tarrant County theaters this week, though that’s not the only reason why this movie falls short.
It certainly isn’t the fault of the extraordinary real-life story of the African-American women who worked at NASA in mid-20th century and helped the agency win the space race, often with lesser job titles and salaries than their white counterparts there. The movie is based on an accompanying book by Margot Lee Shetterly, whose father worked alongside those women. Picking up in 1961 after the Soviets have launched Laika into space, the story follows three women working as “computers” for the agency. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) heads up the division and teaches herself to program the new IBM machine when it arrives at NASA. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is going to night school in hopes of becoming the first black woman to be a full-fledged engineer at the agency. Still, it’s Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) who draws the plum assignment of working with the Space Task Group, which is in charge of launching the rocket that will make John Glenn (Glen Powell) the first astronaut to orbit the earth.
As almost always happens, some dramatic license has been taken; the character of Space Task Group’s starchy boss (Kevin Costner) is a composite of three men, while the astrophysics calculations that Johnson did to correct Glenn’s re-entry were accomplished in three days instead of a matter of minutes. This is director Theodore Melfi’s follow-up to his 2014 dramedy St. Vincent, and he’s more or less comfortable with the sprawling plot and the special-effects shots of rockets shooting into space.
Where he falls down is the script, co-written with Allison Schroeder and trafficking in the same boilerplate elements that we’ve seen from The Help and a zillion other comforting movies about race that shortchange the complexities of America’s history. There are some satisfying little moments, like when an unfriendly administrator (Kirsten Dunst) proclaims she has nothing against the African-Americans and Dorothy calmly answers, “I’m sure you believe that.” Still, Katherine’s romance with a handsome National Guard colonel (Mahershala Ali) is barely sketched in, and the movie too often falls down in the big moments, like the one when Katherine, rain-soaked from her 20-minute walk to use the colored bathroom in another building, reaches the end of her rope with the whole situation. Despite admirable efforts from its high-powered cast, Hidden Figures takes a remarkable story and makes it feel the same as so many other movies.
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. Directed by Theodore Melfi. Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book. Rated PG-13.