1961 the USA is increasingly desperate to catch the Russians in the race for space. At a time when people were genuinely frightened of nuclear war and what was really “out there”, it was deemed imperative the pesky “Commie’s” could not be allowed to own space.
President Kennedy inspired the nation, hero astronauts including John Glen (Glen Powell) were selected ready to be fired into space atop an exploding rocket. There was one minor problem, NASA had not quite worked out how to send a man into orbit and most importantly, bring him safely back to earth.
As always, it’s all about the Math and in the era where computers did not exist or were just being invented, NASA needed human computers, engineers and ultimately programmers. Fierce intelligence and potential existed but downside alert, they were not only women but also black or in the parlance of the time, “coloured”.
“Katherine Johnson” (Taraji P. Henson), “Dorothy Vaughan” (Octavia Spencer), “Mary Jackson” (Janelle Monáe) are close friends and car pool to work each day. They face indifference, hostility, separate coffee and bathrooms areas and are generally treated as second class citizens.
The film is set against the civil rights struggle at the time, with the attitudes of the day from supervisors “Paul Stafford” (Jim Parsons) and “Vivian Mitchell” (Kirsten Dunst) varying from outright hostility to indifference. “Al Harrison” (Kevin Costner) in charge of making the project a reality, is marginally more accepting. Harrison steadily breaks down barriers to ensure his project is completed, arguably his humanistic drive to right wrongs is of secondary concern.
As the women and project proceed, progress is slow but steady and with an ending so well known, at the world event level, there is no doubt where this is heading. What is less known until recently, is the contribution to the space program made by those marginalised by some of the general population at the time, women and African Americans.
The acting as you would expect from the cast list is strong, the women show great chemistry, bearing burdens at work and home with great fortitude and patience. Henson is a stand out, hiding her almost savant genius behind a demure exterior but with a wicked sense of humour and a quiet fierce determination. The almost obligatory blackboard moment is especially worth the wait. Costner can of course play this role in his sleep and Parson is arguably a slightly diluted “Sheldon Cooper” from Big Bang Theory.
The paranoia of the time and more simplistic pre Internet world-view is well portrayed. Not a perfect film and occasionally simplistic but unquestionably relevant in the new Trump era. Certainly the bravery of those fighting for recognition is well served here and provides a glimpse into the past, albeit somewhat airbrushed for a mainstream family friendly audience.
Watching this based on fact story, provides an indication of how far we have come in fifty years. However, it’s evident hard won gains need to be continually fought for, we should never take them for granted. Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2015, the highest US civilian award. On May 5, 2016, the new Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility was formally dedicated at the agency’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia.
This is a great story well told, albeit with some rough edges smoothed off. On occasions it feels safe, with some Disneyfication of the screenplay. A few cinematic risks might have taken the film into true classic status.