Movies ripped from the headlines often play fast and loose with the real-life events they’re reenacting. But it’s rare to encounter one whose dramatic liberties actually result in a story less sensational, and less interesting, than the one presented by said headlines. That’s the perplexing case with Lucy In The Sky, Noah Hawley’s fictionalized take on the stranger-than-fiction story of Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who was arrested for attempted kidnapping in 2007, just a few short months after returning from space. Hawley changes the names, and tweaks the nature of some of the relationships, often for the sake of narrative expediency. But his most confounding deviation, already well-publicized, is the omission of a rather significant, attention-grabbing detail: the report that Nowak wore absorbent underwear on the long drive that preceded her crime. Yes, you read that right. Hawley has made a movie about the astronaut in the diaper that omits the diaper entirely. That’s not burying the lede; it’s deleting it.
If you watched talk shows in the winter of ’07, you probably remember the incident, whose sordid particulars were regular late-night joke fodder. Nowak—then one of NASA’s most decorated—set out on a 900-mile road trip in early February of that year, her car stocked with incriminating supplies: a gun, a knife, a drilling hammer, pepper spray, tubing, a black wig, a large wad of cash. She drove straight from Houston to the airport in Orlando, where she would confront and attempt to assault Colleen Shipman, a U.S. Air Force Captain. Shipman was dating another astronaut, William Oefelein, who the married Nowak had been involved with earlier, before he cut off the affair. The media, of course, framed the story as a wild love triangle, and the crime as one of passion, the desperate behavior of a scorned lover. The diapers, meanwhile, were said to be practical—a way for the assailant to make the trip in one sitting—though Nowak actually disputed that element of the police report, her lawyer denying in court that she really wore them or had a stash of them in the car.
Lucy In The Sky naturally builds to those fateful couple of days. The challenge the film lays out for itself is explaining how someone so put together that she was chosen to go to space could float that far over the deep end. And honestly, the theory it comes up with is convincing, dramatically and psychologically. We meet the hyper-competent, workaholic, goofily renamed Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) in orbit, gazing upon the full wonder of the planet while suspended above it, in an opening scene that proves that the technological wizardry of Gravity is, six years later, now affordable enough to be casually implemented in the prologue of a mid-budget drama. For Lucy, space is more than mind-blowing; it’s so transcendent that nothing about life back on terra firma can compete. To cope with her agonizing boredom, Lucy throws herself into the competition for a spot on the next mission roster. She also begins cheating on her supportive drip of a husband (Dan Stevens) with the Oefelein stand-in, played by a typically smarmy and smoldering Jon Hamm.
The script, by Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi, fudges facts, sometimes with good reason. It makes sense, for example, that the Shipman character would, in this loose dramatization, be reimagined as a professional rival as well as a romantic one—a young NASA hire (Zazie Beetz) nipping at Lucy’s heels and threatening her return trip to the cosmos. Yet for as much as Lucy In The Sky tries to envision a credible personal life for its heroine, à la last year’s portrait of a troubled astronaut, much of the plot is mere setup—the domestic drama as glorified prelude. Hawley, the FX-network hotshot who created Legion and also the anthologized TV version of Fargo, seems to recognize that the home-front encounters might be as dull to us as they are to Lucy, and overcompensates by packing his debut feature with a lot of signature garish style: exaggerated camera angles; an aspect ratio that expands and contracts to express the difference between space’s boundless marvels and Earth’s dull routines; and a dazed float through a hospital set to an ethereal cover of the relevant Beatles song. (One is reminded that what passes for visionary direction on the small screen might not look quite as revelatory on the big one.)
Portman, rocking an accent as thick as Texas toast, takes Lucy’s dissatisfaction seriously. Her performance is persuasive and believable until it isn’t—which is to say, until the film needs her to go over the edge but not so far over that it might endanger our investment in Lucy’s plight. The goal, theoretically admirable, is to shine a sympathetic new light on a public figure who the culture treated like a punch line. It’s why the diaper stuff had to go: Seeing her slip one of those on might risk more live-studio-audience laughter, when Lucy In The Sky wants us to see her not as a joke but as a victim of impossible pressure, stifling domesticity, and institutional sexism. But to sanitize Nowak’s story is to bend it into a manufactured emotional arc—to try to fit the honestly deranged reality of her actions into a commiserative distortion of them. It’s like if I, Tonya had lost that whole unpleasant kneecapping business out of fear that the audience might find Tonya Harding less likable afterwards.
Not that the lack of diapers is really what does Lucy In The Sky in, though you do have to question the judgment of anyone who’d jettison a detail so singular and weird, however true or untrue it was. No, the bigger issue is that Hawley and company spend almost two hours laying banal dramatic groundwork, and then when they finally get to the climax—rewritten to involve a more “empowering” comeuppance for Hamm’s fickle lothario, as well as the somewhat unnecessary company of Lucy’s impressionable niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson)—it’s as anticlimactic as it is factually inaccurate. The irony of the elisions is that the only reason anyone would stick out such a boring character study is that there’s some wild shit waiting at the end of it. Lucy In The Sky ends up playing like some unauthorized Jackie Jormp-Jomp version of the Lisa Nowak story, as though they couldn’t get the rights to the names, or to the shit.