As this wonderful film begins, the stage is set as Kathryn Goble Johnson and her two mathematician colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn encounter a racist and sexist cop as they are at the side of the road fixing their car, which breaks down on their way to work at NASA’s Langley, Virginia campus. It is the height of the Space Race, and when the cop finds out where they work, he is eager to help despite his prejudices. If only their employers could say the same. The campus is segregated, with the “coloured” employees in their own distant building. Our three heroines work as “human computers”: whole pools of women who do the mathematical calculations necessary for the NASA engineers to put rockets into space.
The oppressiveness of the times is made manifest daily in segregated life in Virginia at the dawn of the sixties, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that made segregation and other forms of racial discrimination illegal. Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) must endure the prying of a busybody librarian to find a single book on FORTRAN in the white section of the library. On the bus with her two boys after being ejected, when they say she “stole” the book hidden in her purse she’s defiant: “I pay taxes. It ain’t stealing if you already paid for it,” and then proceeds to open the book and start teaching the boys about this new programming language.
Each of the characters have their own moment of defiance in the film, and reference to the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King abounds, but ultimately the movie is keen to show the women winning over their white male oppressors with their brilliance. Kathryn (Taraji P. Henson) is key to this, being a math prodigy vastly underused in the computing pool. She manages to make her way into the main engineering room as a temp and proceeds to blow them away with impressive chalk board scribbling about orbits and altitudes. Kevin Costner plays the chief of NASA’s Mercury 7 project whose drive to beat the Russians at something leads him to overturn convention allowing her into the highest levels of the project, impressing John Glenn (Glen Powell) who later specifies he wants her to double check her male colleagues calculations before take off of the rocket that propels him into orbit, the first American to do so.
Director Theodore Melfi reportedly turned down a huge pay check (to direct the newest Spider-Man movie) so that he could do this film. If he is this good at making choices, he has an interesting career ahead of him. This movie would probably have all the knocks against it in a Hollywood boardroom: three female leads, all African-American, and it’s about math. It is a credit to the whole cast and crew that it works so well, and while it probably takes on one too many “inspirational movie” tropes to be considered a truly great film, you will be glad you saw it, at the very least for the story alone (Melfi did get Oscar nominated for best adapted screenplay, along with co-writer Allison Schroeder).