Toronto Film Review: Natalie Portman in Lucy in the Sky

Peter Debruge
September 13, 2019

Natalie Portman and director Noah Howley try to humanize the high-profile case of disgraced astronaut Lisa Nowak, revealing the enormous pressures on women in a male-dominated field.

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The term “space case” may as well have been invented for Lucy Cola, a fictional astronaut loosely inspired by Lisa Nowak, who famously (if not entirely factually) donned adult diapers and powered her way cross-country to confront a romantic rival at the Orlando airport, where she was arrested for what amounted to attempted kidnapping and battery.

Now, Natalie Portman offers an alternate interpretation. In its oddly understanding and stylistically ambitious way, Lucy in the Sky suggests that maybe outer space was to blame for Nowak’s actions.

In any case, the script (which Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi wrote, and director Hawley retooled) floats its armchair analysis of the character early, when a post-touchdown therapist played by Nick Offerman (bearded and wheelchair-bound, like some kind of eccentric comic book character) quotes Michael Collins, who accompanied Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo 11 mission. Stuck orbiting the moon while those two made their famous walk, Collins reportedly wrote, “I am now truly alone and absolutely alone from any known life. I am it.”

Surely space must have had a profound impact on Nowak — whom we’ll refer to as Lucy going forward, since the film strays pretty far from the truth in its exploration of her psychology. Why Lucy? As far-out pop songs go, Elton John’s Rocket Man and David Bowie’s Space Oddity are both about spacemen, and the filmmakers clearly wanted something equivalently ladylike to play over the movie’s trippiest sequence — not counting the vaguely Gravity-like opening, when Portman’s kaleidoscope-eyed Lucy sees her life from above and suffers a kind of existential crisis.

From space, Lucy watches everything that once felt so important flash by like a montage. Later, confiding in flirtatious fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), Lucy explains in her thick Texas drawl, “You go up there, you see the whole universe, and everything down here seems so small.”

It’s the kind of observation the film treats as if you had to be there — like blasting past the atmosphere is the only way to lose perspective on one’s terrestrial concerns.

Except that there are a thousand ways that happens to people every day: a near-death experience, falling in love, being treated as a celebrity. When it’s used to justify an extramarital affair, it’s called rationalization, and while I’m not here to judge Lucy for it, the movie seems to go to extraordinary lengths to suggest that her garden-variety enviousness was somehow special when in fact, it was her reaction that made her case exceptional.

Hawley’s film wants to have it both ways, playing it sensitive one moment and sensationalist the next. But it does take the step of confronting the systemic flaw — workplace sexism — that played into Lucy’s actions. She may have been having an off-limits (indeed illegal, according to military rules, since she was married) affair with a colleague, but she wasn’t doing it alone. Portman radiates confidence in the role, ably masking the character’s well-hidden vulnerability. For Lucy, “the sky” had become a kind of drug. Once she’d gone up, she was desperate to achieve that high again, which is something so few women are permitted to experience. In that respect, the movie feels timely, illustrating the incredible obstacles women face to be taken seriously in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Nearly half a century after the events of Hidden Figures, the opportunities for women at NASA have evolved from functioning as thankless human calculators to being astronauts themselves — a struggle more directly dramatized in a French film, Alice Winocur’s Proxima, that also premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Unfortunately, every hard-won step of progress can be instantly reversed by a hoary sexist stereotype, as when Lucy’s boss tells her, “You just let yourself get too emotional.”

Until now, Hawley has managed to keep this showy melodrama relatively relatable. Once accused of being hysterical, however, Lucy proceeds to unravel, and suddenly the movie spirals into Brian De Palma territory: Lucy goes to the grocery store and buys a wig, a mallet, a knife and everything else in the Piggly Wiggly “kidnapping supplies” aisle. At this point, Lucy in the Sky will either lose audiences or win them over, suggesting that she somehow lost her mind (or a part of it) in space.

– Courtesy

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