(CNN) — Some movies rely on a single character to make a compelling experience. “Hidden Figures” has three key characters who could make any other movie on their own. So despite an overly calculated feel, the numbers add up in favor of this uplifting film, which celebrates America’s pioneer spirit during the space race while delving into that era’s shameful aspects vis-à-vis race and gender.
“Hidden Figures” is periodically guilty of a sort of thudding earnestness, as well as emotional manipulation. Still, with its top-flight cast and absorbing historical foundation, the movie doesn’t just chronicle when America began reaching for the stars, but sporadically achieves cinematic liftoff.
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, the film deals with real-life African-American women who played vital roles in the space program back in NASA’s “The Right Stuff” days, when John Glenn (Glen Powell) orbited the Earth and the virtues of competing with the Soviets weren’t a subject of debate.
Yet while Katherine G. Johnson (Henson) was such a math genius that Glenn requested she crunch the data for his famous Mercury 7 flight, the atmosphere at NASA headquarters circa 1962 was such that Johnson had to walk a long distance just to find a “colored” restroom. This eventually prompts her crusty boss (played with world-weary authority by Kevin Costner) to inquire why she disappears for stretches, prompting her to explain the indignity in a rare outburst.
Katherine’s capable supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), is similarly denied a promotion to the job she’s already doing by her snooty supervisor (Kirsten Dunst). Meanwhile, Mary Jackson (Monae, having a very big transition-to-acting year with “Moonlight” and now this) yearns to become an engineer, despite some serious impediments due to Jim Crow segregation.
Working from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, director and co-writer Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) has such a stirring story on his hands that it doesn’t require much embellishment, or frankly, leave a whole lot of room for side plots. Amid the work, Katherine — a widowed mother of three — does find time to begin a relationship with a just-returned military man (Mahershala Ali), scenes played with a sweetness that adds to the movie’s gentle appeal.
A clever title with multiple meanings, “Hidden Figures” captures the enthusiasm that surrounded putting men in space, but tempers it with the injustices faced by those who assisted them back on Earth. That includes the brilliantly capable Katherine being told by her immediate supervisor (“The Big Bang Theory’s” Jim Parsons) that “computers,” the rather amusing job title back then for those working in the math department, don’t put their names on reports.
The performances are uniformly strong, and the rapport among the central trio feels warm and natural, with Henson displaying a very different side than her “Empire” alter ego. Still, the underlying facts of the story — made even more resonant by Glenn’s recent death — do most of the heavy lifting, leaving behind a film that’s periodically stirring if never especially daring.
Because so much attention has been devoted through the years to the romance of the early space program, just watching “Hidden Figures” — down to the details in its closing crawl — will likely surprise those who are unfamiliar with this chapter in that history. Whatever the movie’s flaws, they’re largely eclipsed by the warming light that it sheds on those blind spots.
“Hidden Figures” opens in limited release December 25 and wide on January 6. It’s rated PG.