Math is at the center of “Hidden Figures,” a historical drama about forgotten African-American women who were pivotal to putting the first Americans into space. “By the numbers,” though, is also an apt description of the predictable plot and characters who seem based more on algorithms than actual people.
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe play three women who were “computers” for NASA in the early 1960s – at a time when that term referred to someone who was really good at math rather than a machine. Katherine Johnson (Henson) is the standout genius of the bunch, who can see past the numbers into the “deep math” consequences of what they represent.
Monáe plays Mary Jackson, the young upstart of the trio, and Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan, who acts as manager of the computers but doesn’t get the title, pay or respect from her white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) she deserves. The blacks and whites are kept segregated in different buildings, right down to water fountains and restrooms labeled “colored.”
Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the NASA man in charge of the number-crunchers. He finds his all-white-and-male eggheads aren’t up to the task, so Johnson is conscripted to join his team, with predictable tensions from the engineers. (Jim Parsons plays the chief antagonist.)
The actors give a good account of themselves, especially Henson. But it all unfolds so unsurprisingly -- the meek Henson finally having her big hear-me-roar speech; Harrison taking a sledgehammer to the “colored” signs when he realizes racism is hindering scientific progress; Vaughan tackling the newfangled machines from IBM and earning new esteem.
Theodore Melfi, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, gives us an interesting and powerful piece of history. But the story spools out in a manner that’s strictly 1-2-3.
Bonus features as good. There’s a feature-length commentary track featuring Melfi and Henson; deleted scenes; a gallery of production stills; a making-of documentary, “It All Adds Up;” plus a featurette on filming on location in Georgia.