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SYFY WIRE Toronto International Film Festival

How Lucy in the Sky compares to the true story of the diaper-wearing astronaut

By Kayleigh Donaldson
Natalie Portman Lucy in the Sky

Lucy in the Sky, the drama by Legion creator Noah Hawley, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to mixed reviews. The movie, starring Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm, was criticized for various reasons, but one especially comical element that kept coming up in these critiques was the lack of diapers. As the film makes clear in its opening, Lucy in the Sky is based on real events, more specifically, the story of Lisa Nowak.

The astronaut became an unwitting celebrity in 2007 when she was arrested and charged with the attempted kidnapping of a U.S. Air Force captain who was romantically involved with a fellow astronaut Nowak had been conducting an affair with. The case made the headlines thanks to its impossibly salacious nature. It really was a scandal that had everything: astronauts, kidnapping, a 900-mile non-stop drive, extramarital affairs, and, of course, diapers. Nowak was a former naval flight officer who in 1996 had been selected by NASA to work as a mission specialist in robotics. She flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in July 2006, where she took part in various spacewalks and logged close to 13 hours in space. While Nowak had three children with her husband, a contractor to NASA, she conducted a two-year-long affair with fellow astronaut William Oefelein. He had tried to break it off gradually before beginning a relationship with NASA engineer Colleen Shipman, which Nowak reportedly did not take well.

In February 2007, Nowak drove from Houston to Orlando to confront Shipman, who had arrived in the city by plane. Nowak followed Shipman to her car and shot pepper spray at her. Shipman drove off and the police were summoned, and Nowak was arrested. Nowak was found with an assortment of items that left her well-equipped for a kidnapping: a black wig, pepper spray, a drilling hammer, plastic garbage bags, black gloves, and rubber tubing. It was also alleged that she had brought along adult diapers so she wouldn't have to stop on her long drive to use the bathroom. Nowak, through her lawyer, would strenuously deny this claim, but by that point it had already become a nationwide joke.

Nowak pled not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping and battery, and in November 2009 she agreed to a plea deal to the lesser charges of felony burglary of a car and misdemeanor battery. The following year, having already had her associations with NASA scrapped, she was not-quite-honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy.

For the eponymous Lucy of Hawley's movie (played by Portman), her downfall is nearly identical in its basic details, but before she takes a very long car ride with a lot of rope in the trunk, the audience is treated to her story. Lucy Cola is at the top of her field in every way: high school and college valedictorian, number one in her class in the Navy, a lifelong overachiever who has finally fulfilled the highest goal available to her by going into space for a NASA mission. She returns home to her quiet Texan life with her sweet but dim husband (Dan Stevens), who also works for NASA; her foul-mouthed nana (Ellen Burstyn); and the glimmer of hope that one day she will return to the stars. She feels lost and utterly insignificant after having seen the Earth from above, and soon takes solace in an affair with a sexy-skeezy fellow astronaut (played, obviously, by Jon Hamm), but then there's another woman on the scene, played by a criminally underused Zazie Beetz. She's just as smart as Lucy, just as special, and soon Lucy knows her spot in space is jeopardized.

Using the story of Nowak, Lucy in the Sky seeks to tell a story of a woman isolated by her unique honor of having gone into space and the particular strain of madness this encourages in her. Lucy is addicted to her time away from Earth, having become wholeheartedly consumed with returning once more to space, just one more visit and then she's done, she swears to her husband. She has experienced something that only a handful out of billions of human beings will ever get to do, and there's no way anyone else outside of that sacred inner circle can understand what she's been through. How could one not go mad? The accusations of "space madness" plagued Nowak in the press fallout from her arrest. It's the stuff of science fiction that makes an already alluring experience all the more titillating.

Nowak's own legal team tried to mount an insanity defense, and two psychiatrists who evaluated her diagnosed Nowak with Asperger's disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, as well as a single episode of major depressive disorder and a "brief psychotic disorder with marked stressors" at the time of the incident. This defense was thrown out before it could get to trial but it opened up myriad public ethical and medical ramifications for NASA. The agency fell under criticism for its astronaut screening process, so NASA commissioned a panel of experts to study the way the agency evaluates the health of astronauts. What they found was shocking, to say the least.

While no specifics or evidence were given to substantiate the claims made, it was reported that unidentified astronauts admitted to being intoxicated as they prepared for space flight and that NASA had discounted its physicians' warnings that crew members were unfit to fly. A further report stated that there was no evidence to verify the panel's claims, but as with Nowak's arrest, the damage had already been done to their reputation. Anyone who held any ideas about astronaut life being an inevitable descent into madness only had their fears confirmed by the fallout. And so the myth was once again made true: space madness!

This isn't exactly the route Lucy in the Sky takes. It tries to be more empathetic to Lucy's plight than the media were to Lisa Nowak, but it cannot help but sink into wannabe melodrama once it comes time for the kidnapping. Natalie Portman is happy to lean into the appealingly camp nature of this subplot, but it's at such odds with everything that preceded it so the ultimate result is a story that's more insulting than revealing.

Retired astronaut Marsha Ivins wrote a piece for Time in 2017 taking umbrage with the movie when it was initially announced as a Reese Witherspoon project titled Pale Blue Dot. She was especially disappointed in the film being described as exploring "a longstanding idea that says astronauts begin to lose their grip on reality after being in space for an extended period of time," and the seeming focus on this "madness" being rooted in the astronaut's gender. It's another reason the Nowak case was so enthralling to the masses. To put it bluntly, it's funnier for many to see a crazed woman astronaut in a diaper than it is a man. It fulfills archaic preconceptions about women's abilities and mental sensitivities, dismissing our competence in favor of a general "women be crazy" narrative.

A driving problem with Lucy in the Sky is that it believes it's giving Lucy, and by extension Nowak, back her humanity and understanding her issues from a female perspective. It really isn't because it just can't resist the allure of the madness, even though it doesn't have the nerve to fully commit to astro-Fatal Attraction with urinal support. The movie wants it both ways but is too timid to commit to either version of this narrative.

It then tries to assert a theme of workplace misogyny and positioning Lucy's "madness" as a symptom of being marginalized by men in her job. It's not that she's mentally struggling or pushing herself in potentially dangerous ways ⁠— even though she totally is and at one point risks her own life during an underwater exercise — it's just that all the dudes keep trying to stop her. This is not a story that can support being both a worthy psychoanalytical drama and a drag queen-ready camp frenzy. Lucy is deprived of an internal life, and when she does talk about her feelings, it's in blunt platitudes that over-simplify everything and only further add to the "crazy" vibe. The all-male director and writer team who re-imagined this story struggle to get away from the allure of said crazy, and it's to the detriment of the film, which needs a far more sensitive set of hands at its helm.

Lucy in the Sky seeks to use the basic and finer details of Lisa Nowak's story to try and empathize with her unique plight, but it cannot help but take the easy way out and get silly when it comes time for the attempted kidnapping. When Lucy and her niece go to stock up on supplies, a song by The B-52s plays, which tells you exactly the tone they're going for. If the intent was to humanize Nowak beyond the one moment she is unfortunately defined by in the eyes of the public, the film has left some major gaps it needs to fill in.

In 2017, People reported that Lisa Nowak was living in Texas, working in the private sector, and "doing well," according to her lawyer. It is unknown if she will ever see Lucy in the Sky and highly unlikely she'll ever talk publicly about it if she does. It is a shame that such a stirring and wildly misunderstood story will probably never get the retelling it needs or deserves. Try as Lucy in the Sky might to be serious, all it really wants is to be silly.

Lucy in the Sky premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and will open in theaters on October 4.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.