Director: Theodore Melfi
Writer: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Cinematographer: Mandy Walker
Producer: Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams, and Theodore Melfi
by Jon Cvack
My girlfriend and I had the privilege of seeing a preview of this film at the San Diego Film Festival where the director had a fifteen minute, uncolored, unmixed cut to preview. It was an incredible picture, full of fascinating characters and an incredible cast, showcasing the math and engineering prowess many of these women possessed. Unfortunately, we then missed the theatrical run due to conflicting schedules, though after finally getting the film on BluRay it provided one of the strangest movie experiences I’ve ever had, learning that the fifteen minute preview we saw was not at all the first fifteen minutes, but rather a compilation of scenes that extended across the first 90 minutes of the two hour and change running time. Keep in mind - the preview did not at all play like some sort of assembly of the best clips, but rather as a strong first act, leaving me excited for where the film would go, and if it could achieve Apollo 13 levels.
The film involves three genius women of color, all working on the race that would eventually send John Glenn into space, including: math wunderkind Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) who was what was once referred to as a “computer” before the machine came out and stole the term; her supervisor that’s not paid or respected as a supervisor/computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer); and soon-to-be engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) as they attempt to navigate segregated and racist Hampton, Virginia at NASA.
They battle against colored bathrooms over a quarter of a mile across campus (which, according to Fact Checks, was embellished and never happened; Katherine Johnson specifically was able to use the white bathroom with limited criticism from her colleagues); bigoted upper management such as Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who preserves the systemic racism (though never actually existed as a person); along with an education system that maintains segregation, preventing people of color - let alone women - from acquiring the necessary credentials to enter into the NASA engineering training program (which did actually happened; Mary Jackson helping to end the policy). We see them experience bigotry and hatred, and knowing that some facts were embellished for dramatic effect I couldn’t help resenting that in order to achieve some great speeches and monologues they had to distort the reality of the culture, making it more racist in order to highlight the courage these women had, which could have been more effective if they focused on the micro.
For instance, when Katherine Johnson finally gets chewed out for having to take another 20 minute break by running across campus, returning to take her coffee from the “colored” pot (also didn’t happen) it leads her to give a borderline cringey speech where she yells and screams about how frustrating it is for her, leading her boss and Director of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), to take a crowbar and beat down the colored bathroom sign in order to usher in integration (also didn’t happen).
The issue is that NASA’s portrayed as a far more aggressive and bigoted enterprise from the era than it really was, making it seem like all the men in Space Task Group were horrible people at the expense of the story. While these women’s story is long overdue for an adaptation, I take issue with have the filmmakers revise history in order to provide a more dramatic effect; as even Katherine Johnson’s double checking of math didn’t take place during John Glenn’s reentry. I know it’s a common practice, but rarely is a film’s entire dramatic effect so heavily reliant on events that never happened. And to toss another trope onto the fire, we get to watch uninspired relationships manifest, featuring powerhouse player Mahershala Ali as veteran Jim Johnson in one of the most underwhelming roles I’ve ever seen.
One the largest issues is presenting these women as benevolent; inviolable in their strength and character; never even attempting to show or hint at a negative trait. So while history is revised and painted with a much more somber tone, the opposite is done for the characters, who serve as paragons of virtue.
It all goes back to that fifteen minute cut, which made many of the embellishments and tropes work, as it all seemed to be building toward something bigger and better than any first act could provide. To think that all of this fluff could have been removed and that it still worked just goes to show how unnecessary it all was and what could have been.
BELOW: Great scene. Too bad it never happened
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