Yesterday I did a phoner with Kevin Costner, who brings a settled, fair-minded authority and decency to his performance as “Al Harrison” in Ted Melfi‘s Hidden Figures (Fox Searchlight, 12.25). There are some older actors who can just walk into a room without saying a word, and right away you relax. Because there’s something square and sensible about them. Costner is definitely one of those guys, and in every one of his Hidden Figures scenes, you know things will be more or less okay. Or that fairness will eventually come to pass.
Kevin Costner as Space Task Group honcho “Al Harrison,” a composite character partly based on the late Robert Gilruth.
Based on Margaret Lee Shetterly‘s same-titled book, Hidden Figures (which everyone likes) is a Kennedy-era tale of three female African-American mathematicians– Taraji P. Henson‘s Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer‘s Dorothy Vaughan, Janele Monae‘s Mary Jackson — who earned respect and advancement in the early years of America’s space program. In particular Johnson’s laser-like assessments were key to the success of John Glenn‘s historic 1962 orbital flight.
They all worked under NASA’s Space Task Group, which Harrison, in the realm of the film, the big boss of. And good old Kevin, a slightly bulky, mild-mannered figure in glasses, white dress shirt and skinny tie, is the guy who gives Johnson/Henson a fair shake and a respectful salute.
The standout moment is when Harrison singlehandedly desegregates the white vs. colored bathroom system at the Space Task Group’s headquarters (which was located in Langley, Virginia) with a sledgehammer or crowbar or something along those lines.
And yet Harrison isn’t presented as some heroic lead-the-charge type. He’s just a pragmatic technician-politician who wants to get the job done fast and accurately, and who therefore respects anyone with the brains and know-how to substantially help in that effort.
Any Wikipedia historian would presume Harrison is based on Robert Gilruth, who headed the Space Task Group (later renamed as the Manned Space Group) beginning in 1958, and who oversaw a total of 25 manned space flights, from Mercury-Redstone 3 to Apollo 15. But Costner says Harrison is actually a composite figure based on Gilruth and another couple of guys he didn’t name. Update: Shetterly just told me via email that the character is a blend of Gilruth and John Stack, who was a top engineer in aeronautics at Langley for decades.
Did Gilruth or Stack actually take a sledgehammer to a sign announcing that a certain bathroom was only for colored people? This is a major “movie moment.” You tell me.
Costner adds that he wasn’t especially pleased with how the character was written at first glance, but that he and Melfi hammered it out and re-shaped the character with a bit more dimension and humanity. I for one can state that this effort not only gave Costner more to work with but enhanced the film as a whole.
Again, the mp3.