Read the Damn Books

Given all the news stories being circulated today about Katherine Johnson – one of the women portrayed in the recent movie “Hidden Figures”, I have been wrestling to stop myself writing an enormous rant against the movie industry, and the willingness of the general public to accept the version of stories told in movies as any sort of “truth”.

The institutional racism portrayed in “Hidden Figures” didn’t exist at NASA by the time Katherine Johnson worked on the Mercury program. Hell – the Kevin Costner character didn’t even exist – he’s a pastiche of three real-world characters, and a backstory of political and commercial wrangling that’s worth a movie in it’s own right. The ages of several key characters (including John Glenn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson’s own children) were shifted by more than a decade in the movie. I could go on.

The book the movie is based upon (as ever) is a different story – a much more truthful story – which is far more complicated, and far more interesting.

It reminds me a lot of “The Immitation Game”, about Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with so many blatant lies in it. The base commander head-hunted Turing to work at Bletchley, Joan Clarke didn’t do the Time crossword to get the job, there was no spy in the hut, there were many more than one hut, the name of the first code breaking machine was “VICTORY”, not “Christopher”, there was no debate about using the information they decoded, there was no brother of a code-breaker on a ship… it was all garbage.

Of course then there’s “A Beautiful Mind” – the movie about the mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. The book by Sylvia Nasar is wonderful, and paints a far more complete and complex picture of a troubled individual than the movie dared. Where were the failed marriages, attempted renunciation of citizenships, and homosexual encounters in the movie? Erased by Hollywood.

If you want to know the real story, read the books. Always read the damn books. And read more than one of them to get different perspectives of the events that really happened.

I you’re interested in the Mercury through Apollo era at NASA, “First Man” is very good (and again, nothing like the movie), “Flight” by Chris Kraft is insightful, and “Failure is not an Option” by Gene Krantz is great too – as are “Moon Shot”, and perhaps the most readable of the bunch – “A Man on the Moon”, by Andrew Chaikin.

Apologies if this comes across as a nerd-rant of sorts. I’ve read a LOT about this period of history, and sometimes think the truth matters – unlike a lot of the journalists who seemed to research Katherine Johnson by watching the damn movie.

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