Pun Daughter thinks this is the best movie ever. And it was nominated
for three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted
Screenplay). And (sorry), I'm like … meh.
It's the story of three African-American women working for NASA as
"computers" in the early 60's, in Virginia's Langley Research Center,
back when calculations were arduously chunked out on huge electomechanical
contraptions. (Oddly, there's nary a slide rule in sight, I'm not sure
how accurate that is.) Langley was, and is, in Hampton VA, in the deep
southern, segregated, part of the state, and as you can imagine, that's an
The primary focus is on Katherine Gobel Johnson (played by the great
Taraji P. Henson), recognized as a math prodigy
from a young age. Her efforts on calculating the trajectories of the
early Mercury flights (Shepard, Grissom, Glenn) are covered.
Dorothy Vaughan (played by Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer), NASA's first
African-American manager. Seeing the future was dim for human
"computers", she taught
herself FORTRAN, and then taught it to the ladies under her wing,
And, last but not least, Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe), another
whiz in math and science. She had aspirations (and qualifications) to be
an engineer, but had to take some formal classes at the then-segregated
Hampton High School. A dramatic courtroom scene in the movie, where
she gets a judge to force her admission.
No question: the story of these women is interesting and dramatic. And
it would make for a pretty good movie.
My main problem with the movie is that it badly trashes actual history
in order to make a "good story". Although the movie explicitly places
itself in 1961-1962, a lot of the stuff portrayed actually happened well before
that. In one ludicrous scene, a gathering of Langley techs is lectured
on the difference between suborbital trajectories (like Shepard's) and
orbital trajectories (like Glenn's); that's something that would have
never happened, since everyone, down to the NASA custodians, probably
knew this already.
In one of the demonstrations of Katherine's genius, she's
portrayed at figuring out a supposedly top-secret fact that
the Redstone rocket was incapable of putting a Mercury capsule into
orbit, and everyone's in awe. In fact this was well-known at the time.
Like, even to ten-year-old kids. Me.
Shepard's flight is described by a TV news reporter as reaching "an
altitude of 116
miles per hour" and would land "about 35 miles off the coast of Florida". Eesh!
In fact, the flight had an apogee of about 116 miles, reached a speed of
5,180 mi/hr, and was recovered around 300 miles downrange from Cape
John Glenn was shown to demand that his re-entry trajectory be
recomputed by the "smart one" (Katherine) on the day of his
flight as more or less a sine qua non of him getting into the
capsule. That would have been interesting, and the
is unclear, but there's no way Katherine could have done
recalculation on the day of the flight as shown.
Glenn's flight is shown to be planned for seven orbits, but was abruptly
cut short to three because of an anomalous reading showing the capsule's
heat shield might have come loose. In fact, three orbits were always
planned, although there was a lot of understandable concern about the
I may sound like a cranky quibbler, but (honestly) all this impaired my
enjoyment of the movie. It's as if a movie about the American Revolution
climaxed with a dramatic horseback swordfight between Generals Washington and
Cornwallis, after Cornwallis had killed George's best buddy, the Marquis
de Lafayette. ("Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert! Nooooo!")