Notes on film: Hidden Figures

The Oscar nominations are out. Once again this year, I have seen exactly one of the nominated films. And I didn’t get around to seeing it until this past Sunday, and mostly because my mother wanted to see it.

I’m going to put in a jump and talk about “Hidden Figures” a bit. Before the jump, a couple of notes:

A) As I’ve said before, my father worked for NASA during some of the same period covered by “Hidden Figures”. Specifically, he worked at what is now known as the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Some of what I’m going to say is filtered in part through my mother’s experience. (I wasn’t born for much of the time my dad worked for NASA, and am too young to remember the rest of his time there.)

B) There may be some things here that could be considered as spoilers, which is why I’m inserting the jump. The movie itself is based on historical fact that you can look up, so I’m not sure how much of what I’m about to say is really “spoilers”. (John Glenn orbited the Earth and returned safely. If that’s a spoiler for you, well, welcome to our planet, I hope you enjoy your stay here.)

Let me be clear: I enjoyed “Hidden Figures”. If you have children who are old enough to sit through a movie with semi-adult themes (I would say late elementary school and up) I strongly encourage you to take them. (There isn’t any nudity, sex, or violence, just adults relating to each other as adults.) There are several things “Hidden Figures” absolutely gets right:

  • The wonder and rapture of problem solving, especially at the level these women are working at. Taraji P. Henson is particularly luminous as Katherine Goble/Johnson (I’ll get to that in a minute): she totally sells the idea that this is what it’s like being totally lost in a problem where there’s nothing in front of or around you but the work. I haven’t seen a depiction of something that’s mostly intellectual that was that convincing since “Searching for Bobby Fischer”.
  • The depictions of male/female relationships in “Hidden Figures” are also superb. There’s two major relationships in the movie. Mary Jackson is married to Levi Jackson, and there’s some friction between them over how to approach the growing civil rights movement, and especially how to talk to their kids. But they clearly have a respectful and loving relationship, even if they do sometimes disagree. There’s a great scene near the end where Mary is about to go to her first night of engineering classes (having fought a court battle just to get admitted): Levi gives her a bundle of mechanical pencils and tells her how much he loves and admires her, and how he knows now not to stand in her way when she wants something.

    The other relationship, and a major thread running through the movie, is between Katherine Goble, a widow with three daughters, and Jim Johnson, a colonel in the National Guard (played well by Mahershala Ali: who did get an Oscar nomination, but not for this movie). It beings with Col. Johnson accidentally insulting Mrs. Goble, and ends with his proposal of marriage to her – and her daughters, and her mother. “I know I’m not just marrying you, I’m marrying your daughters as well.” This is a nice, sweet, and again, loving and respectful relationship. Too much of popular culture, it seems to me, portrays men as stupid or evil or both. I was delighted to see a movie that showed real relationships between real people, and showed them treating each other with love and respect. That’s one reason I think you should take your kids: not just because of the positive messages about women in STEM, but also the positive portrayal of how relationships should work. (The real Katherine and Jim Johnson have been married for 56 years. Just saying.)

  • I’ve grown a little weary of cartoonish villains and heroes. “Hidden Figures” has heroes, obviously, but there aren’t any true villains: just a bunch of folks pulling together and doing the best they can to meet a goal. I appreciate that.

    (Okay, some people might argue that the “Paul Stafford” (Jim Parsons) and “Vivian Mitchell” (Kirsten Dunst) characters are villains. I want to talk about “Stafford” later. As for “Mitchell”, she doesn’t strike me as being a villain; it seems more like she’s bound by social convention. Specifically, she’s trying to navigate race relations in early 1960s Virginia, and women in the workplace in the early 60’s as well. It feels like she’s maternalistic: maybe excessively so, but I can believe she wants the women she’s working with, and the program, to be successful, and this is what drives her actions and behavior. Well, that, and dealing with NASA bureaucracy.)

  • There are many good performances in this movie. I’ve already mentioned Ms. Henson’s work, but her co-stars (and I do believe they are co-stars), Octavia Spencer (“Dorothy Vaughan“) and Janelle Monáe (“Mary Jackson“) are superb as well. I’m glad Ms. Spencer got a nomination, but I would have liked it if Ms. Henson got a nod for best actress.
    Also good in small parts: Olek Krupa as “Karl Zielinski” and Glen Powell as John Glenn his ownself.

    (As an unrelated side note, having seen Glen Powell: I know “The Right Stuff” covered some of this ground, but you know what would be kind of cool? A movie about John and Annie Glenn. Start with their marriage, cover his military career briefly, pick up with his selection as one of the Mercury 7, cover that, his relationship with Annie and their difficulties during that time, and carry through to…maybe 1980. Show Annie not just overcoming her speech problems, but working with other people and helping them overcome their own problems. Hollywood producers, have your girl call my voicemail: we’ll do lunch.)

  • I’m not a mathematician or an orbital mechanics expert. This is anecdotal: my sister took her boys to see this movie. The oldest one is majoring in aerospace engineering at Texas A&M. I am reliably informed that throughout the movie, he was nudging her and saying things like “Euler’s Method! We use that every day, Mom!” So I’d say there’s a pretty good chance the screenwriters got the science right. (LAT interview with one of the screenwriters.)

Okay. So what are my quibbles? You know I have them, right?

1) There’s a scene where Katherine Johnson is asked to check some calculations, many of which have been redacted (because “she’s not cleared”), establishes that they won’t reach orbit with the current rocket but will with the one she’s not cleared to know about…and gets interrogated and accused of being a Russian spy.
This gives “Al Harrison” (Kevin Costner, doing a decent job) a nice character beat. (“Get darker ink.”) But it doesn’t make dramatic sense. Katherine Johnson already has a security clearance. We see this when she first reports to “Harrison”: “Vivian Mitchell” slaps the paperwork on top of her box of personal effects and says “Here’s your clearance.” Now, I’m also not a security clearance expert, and certainly not an expert in circa 1960 clearances. It’s possible that Katherine had a clearance that covered Redstone but not Atlas. But even in that case, wouldn’t it make sense to get her a clearance for Atlas, which would probably be easy given the existing Redstone clearance? Wouldn’t this free up “Paul Stafford” and the other STG members from redacting calculations using ink that wasn’t dark enough? And why accuse her of being a Russian spy if she already had a clearance?

2) There’s a big moment, maybe midway through the movie, where “Harrison” goes off on Katherine for not being at her desk when he’s looking for her. She, in turn, comes right back at him with her own rant about the biological and social facts of life with respect to being a black woman at NASA in Virginia in the 1960s. This is a good scene: among other things, I think it sets up “Harrison”‘s increasing respect for Johnson.
The next scene, though, shows “Harrison” sledgehammering a sign off of one of the colored restrooms. That scene gives Costner’s character a line that got lots of applause during the screening I was in. But again, it doesn’t make dramatic sense: why sledgehammer a sign off the one colored bathroom that’s “a half-mile away”? To show off for the other computers? Maybe. But if “Harrison” wanted to make a difference for Katherine, why not sledgehammer a sign in her own building?
(Note: according to at least one source, the bathroom situation was slightly exaggerated. My mother went out of her way to make the point to me that. at least at Lewis/Glenn, race relations were very progressive: blacks and whites worked together, side by side, and nobody thought anything of it, and there were no white/colored bathrooms. I know this sounds close to “some of my best friends…” but apparently my dad was close enough friends with one of his black coworkers that I was a guest at the coworker’s wedding. I don’t remember this, since I believe at the time filling my diapers was my main form of recreation. Anyway, her main point to me was that the racism in the movie was less NASA and more Virginia.)
The other problem with this scene is that it seems like Costner is hammering, crowbaring, and generally beating on that sign for a solid five minutes. Seriously, either Costner’s character is the most wimpy NASA engineer that ever lived, or that sign is made out of recycled WWII tank armor and attached to the wall with the same bolts they used to hold Redstone to the launch pad.
(How would I have played this, if I were the screenwriter? Have “Harrison” look around at his team, pick up the “separate but equal” coffee pot, throw it across the room (barely missing “Stafford”) and say something like this: “Katherine is an equal member of this team. She will use whatever bathroom she damn well pleases, ideally a close one. She will drink from the same coffee pot and use the same cups as you do. All of you will treat her with respect and as an equal. If any of you sons-of-bitches have a problem with that, you can pick up your final paycheck from accounting tomorrow morning. Are we crystal clear on this?” Would that have been historically accurate? Does it matter? “Harrison” himself is a composite figure.)

3) I don’t watch much TV these days, but I do sometimes see episodes of “Big Bang Theory”, in whole or part, when I’m visiting friends.
I like Jim Parsons. I think he’s a gifted actor with fantastic comedic timing.
I wish they had given him something to do in this movie that wasn’t “Sheldon 1962”.

4) It may just have been me, but this movie felt more like three hours than just over two. Part of that may have been all the character moments scattered through it: Katherine is asked to do re-entry calculations and there’s a callback to her early school days. Glenn asks for “the girl. You know, the smart one.” to double-check the computer’s go/no-go calculations. (This really happened, by the way: it’s in the NASA mission transcripts.) “Dorothy Vaughan” finally gets her promotion to supervisor…and turns it down unless she can bring her team with her. Which she does. (Nice leadership lesson, too.) I don’t know what I’d cut (except maybe some of Costner v. bathroom sign) and I wasn’t bored: “Hidden Figures” just feels longer to me than it really is.

But those are small quibbles. Go. Take your kids. What would you rather have them see: positive depictions of relationships and women in STEM? Or a stupid movie about a dog repeatedly dying and reincarnating, by one of America’s current leading purveyors of glurge?

(Seriously. I don’t want to see dogs die. Tom Cruise repeatedly dying and reincarnating, I’m okay with that. But not dogs.)

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