Sometimes you have to admire the maths. What a finely tuned script this was from Allison Schroeder, delivering uplift or burn-up at exactly the right moment in a beautifully predicted orbit. So here comes the man holding out a chalk to NASA's 'smart girl' Katherine, posing a test. It's a visual motif that recalls the day her elementary schoolmaster demonstrated his faith in her latent genius for numbers. Turns out you can make quadratic equations look elegant on a blackboard and make jotting sums look like the breakout action of a heroine. You've seen the trailers, right? She smashes it out of the park and no-one in the auditorium is going to begrudge the inevitability of that victory.
Equally impressive were the calculations behind intersecting stories of three remarkable women embodying different talents within the sprawling NASA machine of 1961. The gifted mathematician Katherine Goble calculating the trajectory of America's first astronauts. The natural engineer MaryJackson working in a Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, once she's battled the segregation barrier at night-school. And the 'coloured computers' unofficial supervisor Dorothy Vaughan who has the foresight to teach herself a new computing language when NASA invests in an IBM. She actually invents a job not only for herself but her entire team. If Civil Rights protesters outside are facing dogs, water cannons and live rounds, she too displays courage in the face of career death when she insists 'we come together or not at all'.
The pay-load here is that this mind-boggling story is TRUE. I've been researching a book about the Space Race for some years now and I'd come across one article about one of these pioneering women. So I was blown away by the sight of that room full of 'coloured computers' and how integrated these women were into the NASA story. How on earth did they get access to colleges and university degrees? We glimpse in the film the support of their community and families helping power their journeys and they way the women looked out for each other within the corridors of NASA. This is a key theme of the book by Margot Lee Shetterly which inspired the film. Likewise this feel-good vehicle fresh out of Hollywood gains real buoyancy from warm-hearted performances by actresses Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
But beyond the 'Hidden Figures', we are clearly supposed to be rooting for the US of A and Kennedy's project of beating the Commies to the Moon. Kevin Costner's earnest gum-chewing chief has a big speech about how the winners of the race get to make the rules for what happens in space. There's an implication that NASA is strictly about the science where the Ruskies are all about spying and nuclear war-heads. And so here comes JohnGlenn, a blonde cowboy in silver-suit, flashing smiles straight out of a 1960's toothpaste advert. Gagarin by comparison is an uncomfortable historical footnote that cranks up the narrative pressure.
No matter that this is a country which treats its black citizens as untouchables, a point made by the separate 'coloured coffee pot' Katherine's white-male colleagues introduce into the Space Task Group room. (A lovely supporting role here for The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons as the sour-faced Head Engineer.) Yes, there is grit too in the tank along with a ton of sugar to fuel the combustion needed. But it could certainly have explored more the racism within and without NASA. The movie's story arc gives the impression that once Kevin Costner has wrestled the 'Coloured Bathroom' sign down with a hammer (an entirely fictional scene), discrimination was dumped in the bin for good.
Overall the relentless upwards trajectory of the narrative sweeps away any close interrogation of that history. Pharell Williams has spoken of the challenge to match the 'ascension' of the women and his poppy soundtrack does just that. It propels our emotions bang on target. My advice is – don't fight it. Strap yourself in and relish the G-forces of optimism and indignation. Personally I enjoyed the ride so much I postponed a comfort break indefinitely in sympathy with Katherine. And that's gotta be worth a few stars in any review.