The Aeronauts

 

            It's “based on true events,” but there's a considerable editorial license.  Historically, the two people taking the record-setting balloon altitude flight were two men.  But here, writer and director Tom Harper has chosen to make one of them a woman. 

            1862 England.  It was the French who had first introduced the hot air balloon, but James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), an Englishman, thought that it would provide valuable meteorological information.  According to the film, his contemporaries in society circles scoffed at the notion of being able to scientifically predict the weather (insert here your own opinion about our progress since then).  Glaisher couldn't find any reputable ballonist to pilot him skywards, so he turns to the wife of someone who had perished, while she served as his assistant.  Yes, she's still having nightmares about that.  But he's undeterred.  And she, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), apparently feels that a successful attempt would help compensate for her sense of loss.  Besides, she loves the feel of flight.

            The liftoff is given a circus or carnival kind of air, where Amelia plays to the audience unabashedly, while Glaisher, like a good scientist, is just trying to adjust his instruments.  But finally, after liftoff, we experience some of the sheer silence of floating through the clouds.  Glaisher has assured everyone that the weather will be fully cooperative.

            He was wrong.  They run into a powerful thunderstorm whose updraft propels them skyward, much higher than any balloonist before them.  They break the record at 23,000 feet, and soon afterwards are ready to descend, because the ice particles are forming on their faces, but it seems the release valve is frozen stuck.  Now they're ascending so fast that Glaisher gets “the bends,” and it's up to Amelia to climb into the rigging to try to save them both from freezing to death. 

            It's a harrowing manuever, and looks scary even though you're telling yourself that it's all CGI.  (Actually, not all of it.  Turns out the two actors actually did go up in a balloon and part of the filming was done by helicopter.)  And at an estimated 37,000 feet, you're lucky to just survive the altitude.  Much less the crash landing afterwards.

            Happily ever after, for him, is being able to go back to that venerable scientific society and be proven right.  Happily ever after, for her, is getting back on that (winged) horse and riding it again.  We even get to see both of them at the end taking another spin together, this time more relaxed and in control. And yes, historically, Glaisher did continue to go ballooning with his pilot counterpart (the poor chap whose name, Henry Coxwell, gets left out of all this).

            Yes, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones still make a great pairing, as they did in the Oscar-nominated film “The Theory of Everything” (where she was nominated for Best Actress, and he won the Oscar for Best Actor).  They don't even require actual physical intimacy to convince us of their emotional electricity.  So the movie is engaging just to observe their interaction.  Even if we are playing fast and loose with the historicity.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association