Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hidden Figures (2016)

A lot of things happened before I was born.  I’ve always known small computers that could do calculations at a rate impossible for a human.  Before iPhones, there were machines that would fill a room.  Before those machines were human calculators like Katherine G. Johnson.  She, along with Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, worked for NASA when NASA was trying to put a man in orbit.

Everyone knows John Glenn.  He’s the man that America put into orbit.  Not everyone knows the team that put them there.  There were buildings of scientists trying to figure out the math necessary to not only put John Glen in orbit, but get him back safely.

There was a very narrow window with which they had to work.  Too steep and angle and he’d burn up on reentry.  If his descent was too gradual, he’d bounce off the atmosphere and go back into space.  There was also the issue of making sure he landed in the ocean.  Given the magnitude of what they were doing, the smallest of errors could be catastrophic.  This is assuming they can even figure out the math necessary to do the calculations in the first place.

Being that the movie is based on historical events, I’m not ruining anything by stating that John Glenn completes his mission safely.  Being that it’s a movie, I don’t think I’m giving away anything by stating that some liberties were taken.  Yes, Glenn specifically requested that Johnson be the one to verify the computer’s calculations.  Word is, though, that this was actually done well before his mission.  You don’t risk someone’s life like that unless you’re certain.

The movie isn’t so much about the history that everyone knows.  It’s about the people that never really got the credit that they deserved.  Johnson was both a woman and a person of color when culture didn’t favor either.  It still doesn’t necessarily favor either, but the movie shows Johnson having to run to a separate building to use the ladies’ room.

Jackson wanted to become an engineer, but had to go to court just to be allowed to take the courses necessary to even be considered.  Likewise, Vaughn was trying to become a supervisor.  She was already doing the work of a title that she was repeatedly denied.  She also saw the writing on the wall when the IBM computers were being installed.  She took it upon herself to learn FORTRAN for the job security.  (She also took it upon herself to get the machines working.)

All three women have to go above and beyond just to get noticed.  They are all fortunate to have superiors that eventually listen to reason, or at least recognize that the women are correct.  Vaughn might not have been taken seriously had she not actually gotten the computers to actually work.

The movie, like the women, walked a tight rope.  In several scenes, they have to curtail their anger.  Instead of getting mad, they get better.  There are moments when they’re told no, but they’re also eventually told yes.  They do make permanent progress, not only for themselves, but for others.  The one scene that may best exemplify this is Jackson telling a judge that she wants to be the first female engineer, just as he was first in a lot of respects.  The judge is impressed enough to grant her request.

I’d recommend watching it if only to learn who the people were.  I find it odd that it took more than fifty years for a movie to be made about this.  The Apollo and Gemini missions have been shown in film.  Those instances have usually focused on the people who went up into space.  There’s so much more to the story.

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