Hidden Figures

We saw it the other day, basically as soon as it was out in a nearby theater. We happened to go on a weekday matinée, which is what we usually do, but unlike other matinées the place was packed — it looks like we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see this movie. And it did not disappoint: this was one of the few times where the movie audience applauded at the end. My advice: go see it. (You’re welcome.)

The story follows three black women who work as “human computers” for NASA in the early 1960’s. “Computer” was actually what they were called; it was a real but low-status job for low-status (female, black) math whizzes in the days before electronic computers, and there were rooms full of them, like steno pools, at NASA. This being Virginia in 1961, our three heroines were relegated even further into the segregated “colored computers” pool. So with the budding Civil Rights movement as backdrop — and this movie excelled at backdrops, with an awesome period score and loads of what looked at least like archival footage — these women broke through racist and misogynist barriers, and got John Glenn into orbit.

And then, just as electronic computers started to threaten their human computing jobs, they figured out how to be the ones to do the necessary work of programming those computers. (It wasn’t in the movie, but programming back then — difficult, exacting, requiring daily brilliance just like now — was another low-status job for “girls.”)

One thing caught me though, not in the story itself but in how the movie was put together. I remember reading once about how some movies were subjected to audience polling, and changes based on that polling, before final release — I wasn’t quite aghast, but it kind of irked me that this was done, and I started seeing what I thought was poll-driven editing everywhere in the  movies I watched, and I thought I spotted it here.

There were two (three) parallel stories going on: one (two) involving lowly employee showing them how it’s done, and the other showing the futuristic but inert IBM that NASA purchased being brought to life. The stories were finally brought together, mostly by the  juxtaposition of the two “TRIUMPH! THE END” endings, but at one point there seemed to be an aborted attempt at a connection…

The top NASA engineers are trying to figure out some orbital mechanics and realize that they need a different mathematical approach, and Katherine Johnson says “Euler’s Method!” Eureka! But then that’s it: other than a scene where she reads up on the method  in an old text, there’s no follow-up. The thing is though, Euler’s method is a numerical method, made up of many simple calculations instead of a few sophisticated ones, and it’s prohibitively impractical as a tool without the electronic computer. I can almost see the missing scenes, where Katherine’s superiors despair of getting the answer in time because there’s just too many calculations, just as Dorothy Vaughan got that old IBM up and running in time to save the day — oh what might have been! …but that’s getting nitpicky, me dreaming up extra scenes, just because I wanted the movie to go on and on.

This movie was morally affirming — righteous even, and patriotic — without being preachy, pro-science without being hokey, and overall a pleasure to watch. Go see it, and see if you don’t applaud too at the end.

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