THE US space program is something chronicled and looked at many times and from many different angles but never quite like this.
This inspiring historical drama from director Theodore Melfi (St Vincent) shows how it’s possible to tell an important, indeed hidden story in a way that’s informative as it is unendingly crowd- pleasing.
We focus not on the astronauts but the all-important mathematicians crunching the numbers. They are a group of brilliant African-American women – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – who worked at Nasa in ways that would help the country take that eventual giant leap for mankind.
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Not only does the film have a very special element of surprise – we all know about the space race but this amazing true story has stayed largely buried until now – but it uses that revelation as a springboard to meld together a story of hard work, determination and dreaming big with an exploration of race and prejudice in mid-20th century America.
The script, co-written by Melfi alongside Allison Schroeder, has the heft to tackle lofty issues. It’s never afraid to confront the difficulties therein with bold scenes of racial bigotry and exclusion in the workplace, most notably when Katherine has to run half a mile to use the coloured-only bathroom while she’s supposedly working as an equal in her male-dominated workspace.
This is a passionate, smartly written film emboldened by some excellent performances and a wide-eyed (though crucially never naïve) optimism – chin up, eyes to the stars and with its best foot forward.
It serves as a fascinating historical window into a time that is as different in many ways as it is frighteningly similar in others, as well as a tremendously uplifting, empowering and entertaining viewing for a mass audience.