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Review: Lucy in the Sky Isn’t a Biopic of Lisa Nowak — But It Should Have Been

Lucy in the Sky is “inspired by” real events in astronaut Lisa Nowak’s life. But, as those words too often mean, Nowak herself was never consulted or involved in any way. As a result, Lucy in the Sky doesn’t do Lisa Nowak’s story justice and director Noah Hawley’s insistence that it was never intended as a biopic doesn’t explain the choice to tell a less interesting story.

Both Hawley and star Natalie Portman are adamant that the story of Lucy in the Sky is not Nowak’s; in fact, it has been noted that both even avoid using Nowak’s name in interviews. And yet, the film tells the story of a true moment — possibly the worst moment — in Nowak’s life, a moment already lampooned on headlines and talk shows only a decade ago. By mixing the real details of this event with a fictionalized history and demeanor for Nowak, Hawley mixes the worst of both worlds: a buildup that doesn’t match its conclusion, and a version of events that places clear judgment on certain aspects of Nowak’s real life.

For those unfamiliar with Nowak’s story, a recap: In 2007, months after returning from her first time in space, Nowak drove 900 miles, from Houston to Orlando, to confront her ex’s new girlfriend, as the New York Times reports. After tracking her down in an airport parking lot, Nowak sprayed her with pepper spray. The trunk of her car reportedly contained supplies including surgical tubing, black gloves, and a loaded BB gun. The most sensationalized aspect of this story — that Nowak allegedly wore on a diaper to avoid rest stops on her drive to Orlando — was omitted from Hawley’s film. (Nowak later denied wearing a diaper.) Ultimately, Nowak was charged with attempted murder and kidnapping, but was sentenced to only two days in jail and a year of probation.

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Twentieth Century Fox.  TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX.

In looking at this story, there’s one clear point of interest: Why did Nowak do this? What would cause an otherwise functional, rational person to carry out this plan? Hawley set out to answer that question with his film, but the answer he posits — that she was a woman worn down by society’s expectations for women, and utterly undone by her encounter with space — falls flat. Those answers don’t explain her actions in Orlando, even the diaper-free version Hawley portrays. It doesn’t make sense to suggest that a woman pepper-sprayed her ex’s girlfriend because she was fed up with her sexist boss, or did one too many dishes. There’s another story here; Hawley’s just not interested in telling it.

In explaining why he toned down aspects of Nowak’s real behavior, Hawley told the Los Angeles Times that he “was trying to create a character journey that you could really relate to.” But Hawley didn’t try to make Nowak relatable by looking at what she actually did, and puzzling out a relatable motive for it. Instead, he created a story that he hoped would resonate with his audience — a woman with strong career goals and an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment — and tacked on Nowak’s explosive standoff at the end. Hawley needed the climax of Nowak’s narrative to have a story worth telling; it’s not OK for him to ignore the information that climax suggests in favor of details he personally finds more palatable.

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Twentieth Century Fox. TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX.

Let’s take a look at a few key changes the film makes makes to Nowak’s life. In the film, Portman’s Lucy begins her affair with a fellow astronaut (Jon Hamm) as part of her post–space crisis. In reality, Nowak’s affair with Bill Oefelein began in 2004, and she went to space in 2006. In the film, Oefelein’s new girlfriend is a co-worker, and vague competitor, of Lucy’s. In reality, Oefelein’s new girlfriend was completely unrelated to Nowak’s work.

These two changes are vital for Hawley’s goal of turning Lucy into a “relatable” character. They suggest that Lucy would never cheat on her husband unless she was in a serious crisis, and that her eventual breakdown was — at least in part — motivated by professional frustrations, and not purely romantic. In fact, Hawley said this outright about his intentions for the film: “This is not a movie about a woman who falls apart because she is too emotional about a man. There was a danger that this movie becomes Fatal Attraction.”

He’s right: Nowak’s parking lot confrontation screams Fatal Attraction, and, moreover, screams that Nowak is a woman who got too emotional about a man. Given Hawley’s determination not to tell that story, what was he doing using Nowak’s life as inspiration?

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Twentieth Century Fox. Twentieth Century Fox.

Hawley’s intentions are understandable. He wanted to direct a movie about a complicated woman spiraling out of control to a dramatic conclusion. He wanted audiences to cheer Lucy on when her boss said she was “too emotional” to return to space, decrying the workplace misogyny holding this trailblazer back. But, given how the story ends, it’s clear: Lucy is too emotional to go into space. She’s not the face of rational woman who are unfairly persecuted, and Hawley can’t pretend that she is while still building toward a 900-mile road trip ending in disaster.

If Hawley wanted a protagonist we could root for, he should have stayed far away from Nowak’s story. Next time he’s offered the story of a woman doing something objectively unlikable and wrong, he should think carefully about whether that’s a story he’s capable of telling — without blurring the edges beyond recognition.

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