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Hidden Figures shines a bright light on NASA’s unsung heroes

Although it doesn’t open wide until 6 January, Hidden Figures has been making waves in space, science and AvGeek circles since it went into production earlier this year in and around Atlanta, Georgia. And while the film has also been generating serious Oscar buzz of late by collecting two Golden Globe nominations and a coveted Best Ensemble nod from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) – which is historically the most reliable indicator of an eventual Academy Award nomination for Best Picture – the best news about the hotly-anticipated Hidden Figures is that it is also one hell of a movie.

Based on the inspiring true-life tale of how pioneering African American mathematicians Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson helped launch the manned space program at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the early 1960s, Figures is big, rousing, Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. And by focusing on the intellectual and professional pursuits of the strong, hard-working women (both black and white) who broke barriers in STEM-related fields like science, engineering and computer programming in the racially-segregated Jim Crow south, Figures is also exactly the kind of movie our deeply-divided country needs right now. And while I can’t say for certain that Figures would pack the same emotional punch had it been released before our country took a hard right turn into Trumptown, I can tell you with some certainty that the film’s celebration of science, intellect, diversity, and unity in troubled times could not be more timely, or more distinctly American.

Starring Empire’s Taraji P. Henson as Johnson, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as Vaughan and singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe in a fiery, star-making turn as Jackson, Figures is based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly and was adapted for the screen by Allison Schroeder (Side Effects, Mean Girls 2) and the film’s director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent).

While Melfi and company have taken a few liberties with the facts here and there – the characters played by Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves, McFarland, USA) and The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, for instance, are fictionalized versions of several real-life NASA employees, and charismatic as he was, the late John Glenn was not nearly as movie star handsome as actor Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!) – at the end of the day, Figures’ heart is always in the right place. And in aiming for the Hollywood studio sweet spot inhabited by similar “feel-good” civil rights dramas like The Help, The Blind Side and Driving Miss Daisy, the film finds it heartfelt, crowd-pleasing groove early on and never wavers. Infused with humor, loads of heart and some truly spectacular recreations of NASA’s hits (and misses) at the height of our country’s frantic Space Race with the Russians, Figures is also refreshingly free of the leaden seriousness of lofty “message movies” like Selma, which are often bogged down by their own self-importance and tend to feel more like homework than movies.

Loosely set in and around the lead up to Glenn’s historic Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) flight into orbital space in 1962, Figures opens with Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson working as three of the brightest female African American “computers” (the common pre-IBM term for people who could literally compute data by hand) in Langley’s segregated West Areas Computers division. Working their way through the ranks at NASA through a combination of smarts, hard-work and steely-eyed determination, the three friends take different roads to get there but all ultimately end up breaking new ground at NASA, not just for themselves, but for the generations of young women who came after them as well. In fact, Johnson’s pioneering work as an African American woman in STEM earned her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, last year at age 97. And this past May, on the 55th anniversary of astronaut Alan Shepard’s first manned rocket launch — a historic trip that Johnson’s very detailed calculations helped make possible – the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility was formally dedicated in Johnson’s honor at Langley.

Figures also features fantastic supporting turns from a coolly aloof Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man, Midnight Special) as a politely racist thorn in Vaughan’s side, the aforementioned Parsons, a slow burn Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Luke Cage) as the new love in Johnson’s life, and Costner – who, fictional character or not, has some of the film’s best lines – but the real heart and soul of Figures are the film’s three powerhouse leads. Henson, Spencer and Monáe are at the top of their collective games here and watching them bring the unsung, real-life heroes of NASA’s space program to life onscreen is as inspiring an experience as you’re likely to find anywhere this holiday season and beyond.

Opening in limited release in select markets on Christmas Day, Hidden Figures opens in theaters everywhere on January 6th.