My first impression of Tom Harper‘s The Aeronauts (Amazon, 12.6.19) was one of dismay and disappointment. Why, I asked myself, is Telluride screening an implausible, broad-brush fantasy adventure, based on an actual 19th Century hot-air balloon feat but nonetheless fictionalized to showcase the bravery of an imagined female lead…why is Telluride screening this for serious cineastes when it was obviously made for the family crowd?
Everything about The Aeronauts seems tailored to the lowest-common-denominator ADD demo. Every line and scene is aimed at the peanut gallery. Every potential risk and thrill element (almost falling out of the passenger basket, climbing up the side of a balloon in frigid weather) struck me as cartoonishly crude and exaggerated. The recreations of early 1860s London felt about as genuinely atmospheric as the depictions of mid 1930s London in Mary Poppins Returns, which is to say “pass the crackerjack.” It all feels like a movie — a show for the shmoes.
Departing from Wolverhampton in England’s West Midlands district, the team broke the world flight altitude record that day by reaching about 11,887 meters, or 38,999 feet. Glaisher blacked out somewhere around 29,000 feet. The cold caused Coxwell to lose all sensation in his hands, but he nonetheless managed to pull the balloon’s valve cord with his teeth before losing consciousness. The balloon landed safely in Ludlow, about 34 miles southwest of Wolverhampton.
Harper’s film, co-written with Jack Thorne, sticks to the basic story but jettisons Coxwell for a fictionalized female balloonist, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). Except Wren isn’t that fictionalized as she’s based on two 19th Century adventurers — French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard and the British-born Margaret Graham.
Wren’s relationship with late husband Pierre (an Aeronauts backstory) is chiefly based on Sophie Blanchard’s flights with husband Jean-Pierre Blanchard, while Pierre’s death is inspired by that of Thomas Harris on 5.25.24.
I hadn’t done much research before seeing The Aeronauts, but since the greatest perils that befall the voyage are thin air and frigid temps, the viewer naturally wonders why the balloonists decide to ascend six or seven miles into the heavens. They had to know they’d be venturing into harm’s way.
Anyone who’s seen a snow-capped mountain range would know it gets cold at high altitudes, and balloonists had been commonly experiencing high altitudes by the mid 1800s and surely understood that air becomes thinner and thinner the higher a balloonist goes. Any mountain climber could’ve told them that back then. Hell, I can tell you that right now from Telluride.
Half of the earth’s oxygen is contained below 18,000 feet, but you can feel the lack of oxygen just over 8000 feet. At 14,000 ft, air has 43% less oxygen than at sea level. Serious altitude sickness kicks in somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 feet. The peak of Mount Everest is around 29,000 feet.
So given the intention to break an altitude record and all, wouldn’t you think that Glaisher and Wren would take some serious winter clothing with them? As in gloves, scarves, headgear and thermal underwear?
And wouldn’t you think they’d try to immediately descend once they feel themselves getting light-headed around, say, 15,000 feet or thereabouts? Common sense would obviously suggest this, but then this is a popcorn-and-candy movie for dad, mom and the kids.
The bottom line is that I didn’t care very much about Redmayne and Jones above the clouds. One of them could have frozen to death (one almost does) or fallen to the earth and I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. I’ve hated Redmayne ever since The Danish Girl, and especially since Jupiter Ascending. He has a deeply punchable face.
Just as the voyage begins there’s a moment when Wren throws a small dog out of the basket about 150 feet up, but he lands safely with a parachute. (This was apparently a real-deal stunt that Blanchard or Graham did to amuse the crowds.) If only The Aeronauts had shown this stunt going wrong…if the parachute hadn’t opened and the dog had gone splat on the pavement, I would’ve respected it more. At least that would have been unexpected. As is, The Aeronauts is completely predictable and assembly-line.