By LYNN PODOLL
For Rantoul Press
Once in a while a film comes along that simply cries out for a large audience. I believe "Hidden Figures," which opened locally on Jan. 6, is one of those movies.
It is the fact-based story of a group of about 30 black female mathematicians who were crucial to NASA at the beginning of our country’s space program. (Who knows about this?) The film focuses on three of these women, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson, powerfully portrayed by Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, and Taraji P. Henson.
Their critical contributions of formulas and calculations to the early space program helped put John Glenn, later a U. S. senator from Ohio, into orbit around the earth, the first American to do so.
The film has suspense, moving and touching moments and a generous helping of humor, which makes it particularly enjoyable when seen with a larger group of people in a theater, as my wife and I did. One critic complained about the film that "a more biting look at the adversity (these women) faced is required."
I disagree. Director Theodore Melfi has chosen to limit the violence ("The children should not be seeing this.") and racism mostly to television news reports of the civil rights struggle of the early 1960s, when this story is set. The racism and sexism in the film are conveyed in subtle ways, in a look or a stare by a large group of white men, signs on a wall, door or a coffee pot, the lack of a response, the beginning of a sentence never completed.
An early example of the latter is the comment of a white patrolman who comes upon the three women when their car breaks down. When he is told that they work for NASA, he responds "I didn’t know they hired. ..." One of the women cuts him off with "...women. Oh yes, there are many women working there."
He doesn’t need to say the N word; we all heard it. The director, who co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, could have used much more vulgar language, violent visuals and broad humor, but the sublty throughout the film is one of the things I found particularly appealing. It took a while for my brain to figure out that when the script referred to "computers," it was speaking about "people who compute, do complicated math." (As in the work section at NASA called "Colored Computers.")
The arrival of the first IBM computer is one of the turning points of the script, as well as the source of some additional humor. ("Use the big hammer!") We also need to mention that Kevin Costner gives an outstanding performance as Al Harrison, the boss of the entire operation. He gradually becomes aware of the racism and sexism in his staff, especially as subtly (that word again) portrayed by Jim Parsons ("Big Bang Theory") as Paul Stafford, one of the leading members of the working group.
A couple of the scenes are very nearly stolen by actor Glen Powell, who plays a young, open-minded, energetic John Glenn. Some of the intense sequences, as when Glenn is in orbit and is clearly in serious trouble, benefit greatly from the excellent, inobtrusive editing of Peter Tescher. In my experience, rarely does an audience applaud at the end of a film; yet that is what happened Sunday afternoon.
I encourage anyone who has any interest in more recent American history, feminism or civil rights to get to the theaters now while it is on the big screen. The other thing to recommend it? In its subtle way, it is a lot of fun!
There were a couple of sequences where I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of my seat. Don’t miss it — I subtly suggest.
Lynn Podoll is a resident of Rantoul.