Astronaut Lisa M. Nowak
LUCY IN THE SKY C
USA (124 mi) 2019 ‘Scope d: Noah Hawley Official site
Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes
Cellophane flowers of yellow and green
Towering over your head
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes
And she's gone
Lucy in the sky with diamonds
―The Beatles, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (Remastered 2009) - YouTube (3:29), 1967
While the draw here may be the connection to the Beatles song with its overt LSD references, there’s little hint of that in the movie, which plays into the negative stereotypes of women, basically defeating the purpose of all the rigorous training leading up NASA’s Space Shuttle missions which is designed to separate the weak from the strong, allowing those with the most preparedness to be chosen for space flight. Instead the film delves into the superficial psychobabble pretension of very real psychological issues that are actually connected with space flight, particularly the lingering aftereffects of those who have been to space, leaving some permanently changed by the experience in ways that aren’t initially apparent. The film misses the opportunity to explore what is currently unexplored territory in films and instead opts for the more typical melodrama of emotional hysteria, complete with an accompanying female meltdown, where this is more about a falling star, revealing the rapid descent of one of America’s most recognizable astronauts, loosely based on Lisa M. Nowak, where the film is about the unraveling of her regimented and overcontrolled life. Played by Natalie Portman in a Texas accent, Lucy Cola is a fictionalized stand-in for the real person in another “inspired by real events” story, where she finished top in her class in everything, excelling in all mental and physical exercises, knowing each routine backwards and forwards, developing a reputation for being among the most thoroughly qualified and talented candidates for the job, eliminating any notion that women aren’t deserving of consideration right alongside the men. Viewed as something of a badass, she stands out in a highly competitive field, but wants no special treatment, earning her right to be there by displaying her own abilities, rising within the ranks to become a Navy Captain. In the film’s opening sequences, she’s already doing a walk in space performing her mission at the International Space Station, traveling via the Space Shuttle Discovery in the summer of 2006, an experience perhaps best described by astronaut Michael Collins stuck orbiting the moon while his fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their famous moon walk on the Apollo 11 mission, “I am now truly alone and absolutely alone from any known life. I am it.” Upon her return, however, she has difficulty adapting to the mundane aspects of normal life, with a rather undistinguished husband (Dan Stevens) who’s not much of a help around the home, supposedly works in public relations at NASA, but helps in raising a teenage niece named Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson). Maintaining a flawless exterior along with a cheerful smile, Lucy goes about her business as if nothing has changed, but thinks of little else other than getting back up there on the next space flight.
Explaining she never felt more alive than the time she was in space, Lucy is a seriously driven woman, maintaining a close relationship to her aging mother, Evelyn Burstyn as a grand old alcoholic matriarch in the Southern tradition, who speaks freely with frequent use of profanity, no longer caring whether or not it disturbs anyone, as she walks to the beat of her own drum, becoming the role model for Lucy and at the same time her strongest defender, proud of how she’s made her way in the world, rising above stereotype and prejudice and gone toe to toe with the men. Then along comes one of those men, Mark Goodwin (modeled after William A. Oefelein), a NASA pilot flirtatiously played by Jon Hamm, who gets chummy with her, inviting her into an exclusive bowling club consisting of members who have already been in space, giving her hands on training, which basically means he gets to put his hands on her, with the expected results. He pushes her button of invincibility, penetrating her armor of defenses by plying her with plenty of alcohol, starting a steamy affair that keeps her out at night, usually returning home a little tipsy, making up fictitious excuses about where she’s been, covering it all with extra work explanations, all of which is new territory for their marriage, as he husband knows right away that something is off. This little romance becomes the centerpiece of the film, but only after establishing her rock solid credentials, with her mother describing it more graphically, “All that astronaut dick is making you soft,” where this behavior feels tawdry and illusory, breaking with her routine of doing things solo, relying only upon herself, instead becoming thoroughly enchanted by his easy and relaxed manner around women, where losing that veneer of independence and invincibility seems to do the trick, finding another gear where she doesn’t have to answer to anyone or explain herself, but can simply let herself loose. All goes well until she accidentally runs into him with another woman, fellow astronaut Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz), which sends her into a jealous tailspin. While the first half of the film exemplifies Lucy’s strength and natural charm, an Alpha female that is used to being top dog, earning the respect of those around her, including her family, but it all implodes once she gets the hots for another man, losing her emotional balance, as she’s always been a straight shooter. While the film suggests there may be something to post-flight traumatic stress patterns, retired astronaut Marsha Ivins, a veteran of five Space Shuttle missions, dispels the notion that there is such a thing as a “longstanding idea that says astronauts begin to lose their grip on reality after being in space for an extended period of time.” Nonetheless, the film clearly insinuates something is not right after her return to earth.
The film does try to cleverly integrate a trippy cover version of the Beatles song into the story, Jeff Russo - Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds (feat. Lisa ... YouTube (5:31), where the familiarity with the psychedelic residue actually contributes to its effectiveness, though it’s not what one expects, as instead of an LSD hallucinatory experience it’s associated with a psychic breakdown, expressing a fractured identity, inducing a dreamlike state of awareness that’s instigated by her grandmother’s stroke, as she literally floats through the doors and hallways of the hospital, using the Spike Lee technique of standing still while the world moves around you, where she literally glides through space, suggesting an out of body experience, which only deteriorates further when things don’t end well, losing her grandmother, who was her Rock of Gibraltar. Adding to her list of woes is NASA’s refusal to recommend her on the next shuttle flight due to “emotional instability,” becoming just another victim of sexism, which sets off the fireworks. From there, the movie digs itself into a deeper abyss, paying too much attention to the jilted lover angle of astronaut Lisa Nowak, whose criminal cross country adventure got her kicked out of the Navy (the same for Bill Oefelein), becoming the stuff of tabloid legend, where it’s so wacky and extremely ridiculous that it veers into camp material, but the film takes itself so seriously that there’s no fun in it, clobbered by the press with reviews considering it an abomination, falling flat in a man’s hands, who clumsily forgets what made the protagonist so intriguing in the first place. Everything the film establishes in the first part, Lucy’s principles and high-minded character, gets tossed into the dumpster as she bolts from her husband, brings along her niece, and hops in a car for a special payback mission, meticulously calculated and planned, breaking into Goodwin’s computer to view his email records, including romantic love notes to Eccles, and a personal recommendation to NASA that Lucy wasn’t ready, as her behavior is too erratic, which only strengthens her resolve, picking up strangely curious items like a knife, a BB gun, rubber tubing, garbage bags, a steel mallet, pepper spray, and a blond wig, though what she intends to do with it all remains a mystery. Suddenly jettisoned into a Brian de Palma movie, with Lucy stalking both Goodwin and Eccles at the airport as they’re about to leave on a romantic trip together, she gets crazed notions about holding them personally responsible for her misfortunes, not willing to accept failure or coming in second place, ready to throw it all away and lose everything as she simply goes bonkers, losing any resemblance to sanity, where she initially thought to shoot them, but her more levelheaded niece discovers the gun and hides it from her, preventing further damage from being inflicted. This film resists having an intelligent purpose and instead does a disservice towards women, remaining tone deaf to its own message, as it reinforces the crazed woman stereotype that Lucy and others fought their entire lives to defy, and rather than focus on the unique success stories of women in NASA, it revels in the sensationalist aspects of one spectacular downfall, leaving viewers thoroughly disenchanted and unenthused, as the film simply wimps out at the end and becomes strangely incoherent.