Movie: Hidden Figures
Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (Out of 5)
Review: It is 1961 and the United States is in a space race with the Russians. There is more than national pride at stake. In the midst of the Cold War, leaders are all too aware that intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads will soon become a reality. The United States did not want to lose this race. Then the damn Russians managed to put Yuri Gregorin into space first, and a bit of panic set in at the NASA Space Task Group at Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. The Task Group Manager Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) was not a happy man.
What NASA needed to put a man into space was engineers to figure out how to build a space capsule that could keep a man alive as he is rocketed into space, and survive the extreme heat generated during re-entry to earth’s atmosphere. To do this, they needed brilliant mathematicians who could calculate the exact equations necessary to perform space flight. The mathematics needed for these tasks was unknown, and would require the most brilliant minds to create a new set of computations for the field of space travel. NASA had a roomful of talented men working on the engineering and math problems. But as progress was stymied and political pressure mounted on Al Harrison to get results, an extraordinary event took place. A woman, a black woman named Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), was asked to join the elite team of mathematicians working on space trajectory problems.
Katherine Johnson broke a lot of barriers at NASA because she was simply a genius, and Al Harrison needed her to succeed. Still, there were a few nagging issues for her to deal with, like having to trot 10 minutes over to another building to use the colored women’s restroom, and even have a “colored coffee pot” appear in her work area. To her credit she persevered and contributed greatly to the success of the early United States space program, especially in getting John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space. In addition to Johnson, two other black women from the NASA program are key to the story; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) a computer programmer and first black supervisor for NASA, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), the first black female engineer for NASA.
This is a fascinating film on several levels. First, it is a true story that follows the efforts of three black women who were determined to fulfill their potential in their respective fields despite the unfair barriers placed on women, and the racism faced by blacks in the early 1960s. Secondly, it is an engaging story of the problems overcome by dedicated people at NASA to succeed at the awesome challenges required to put men like Alan Shepard and John Glenn into space. While cringing at the racism that was prevalent at the time, we are gladdened by the dedication and excellence of the NASA people to show the world what Americans can accomplish when we set our minds to a goal. Excellent film, with top-notch acting to carry a terrific story. Definitely an Oscar contender for Best Film and probable nomination for Taraji P. Henson as Best Actress.
Mary Jackson: “Three Negro women chasing a white police officer down the highway? Ladies, that is a God ordained miracle!”
NASA Big Wig: “The President is demanding immediate action. We can’t justify a space program if we can’t put anything into space.”
Female Supervisor to Katherine Johnson: “We’ve never had a colored in here before. Don’t embarrass me.”
Al Harrison addressing his mathematicians and tasking Katharine Johnson: “From time to time I will ask you (Johnson) to check their work. I’m sure you all can, but if that were the case, shingles wouldn’t be flying off the capsule, would they?”
Al Harrison: “No more colored restrooms! Here at NASA we’re all the same color.”
Al Harrison: “How the hell did we find ourselves in second place in a two man race? We’re in the fight of our lives!”
President Kennedy: “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
John Glenn: “Gentlemen, let’s launch this rocket.” (See Nitnoid Fact)
This scene takes a bit of dramatic license, but John Glenn did ask for “the girl” (referring to Katherine Johnson) to manually check the calculations generated by the electronic computers that were critical to the mission. This occurred well before the launch, and calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took her a day and a half. Her calculations matched the computer’s exactly, giving John Glenn, and everyone else, the confidence that the critical computer software was reliable.
Historical Conundrum: The movie shows early IBM mainframe computers sitting around not being utilized. Here’s why:
IBM initially sold its computers without any software, expecting customers to write their own; programs were manually initiated, one at a time. Later, IBM provided compilers for the newly developed higher-level programming languages Fortran and COBOL.
For History Buffs: Something you probably don’t know about John Glenn.
He flew 63 combat missions in Korea with VMF-311,:186 and was nicknamed “Magnet Ass” because of his ability to attract enemy flak (an occupational hazard of low-level close air support missions);:180 twice, he returned to base with over 250 holes in his plane.:180 Glenn flew for a time with Marine reservist Ted Williams (a future Hall of Fame baseball player with the Boston Red Sox) as his wingman,: