When NASA astronaut Lucy Nowak was arrested in February of 2007—on charges of the attempted kidnapping of an Air Force engineer—national attention naturally fixated on certain aspects of her story’s details. There was the love triangle element, obviously (both Nowak and her attempted victim were involved with the same man, a fellow astronaut). But there was also the bizarre, grueling road trip Nowak embarked upon to reach her quarry, one that saw her apply her considerable ingenuity to some fairly serious preparations. Which is how, for better or worse, Lucy Nowak became known as the astronaut who wore a NASA adult diaper while traveling cross-country, that being something she actually did, and the detail that most prominently lodged in people’s minds. (To say nothing of the tabloids and late-night monologues of the era.) But, director Noah Hawley would like to know: Why are we all so fixated on that diaper, huh?
Hawley recently made Lucy In The Sky, a movie loosely based on Nowak’s life, with Natalie Portman playing her—sans diaper, an element that was omitted entirely from the film. Now, Hawley is questioning why so many of us are worried about the diaper, suggesting that we’re all just looking to trivialize Nowak’s story all over again:
I thought it said more about them really; what is it that makes you want that detail, that makes you want to reduce her to a punch line again? The goal of the film is to rehumanize her and to build empathy for her, to show you that she had an emotional and existential crisis and that’s part of becoming an adult. At the end of the day, her punishment was she lost the thing she cared about the most. We don’t need to also punish her by humiliating her.
Co-star Jon Hamm chimed in as well, stating that, “We’re not interested in humorizing this very real and human experience. We’re more interested in making it about the philosophical questions behind it and the emotional questions behind it.”
The counter-argument, though—as our own A.A. Dowd eloquently argued in his write-up of the film at TIFF—is that removing the stranger details of Nowak’s actual, real-life actions doesn’t make their version of her story more respectful; it just makes it more dull. For all the spectacle surrounding it, the diaper is maybe the most human element of the story, an extreme act of desperation that speaks most clearly to the “unraveling” Hawley says he’s hoping to examine. Glossing over it—despite the fact that it was originally, if briefly, included in the script—robs the movie of many of its most interesting moments. Or, to quote Dowd directly: “You’re left wondering why anyone would make the astronaut-in-a-diaper movie if they didn’t want to make an astronaut-in-a-diaper movie.”