Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Review: "The Aeronauts"

“The Aeronauts” has a great, rousing aerial adventure story to tell and a pair of engaging characters to carry it. It’s a thrilling piece of white-knuckle historical entertainment.

But there’s a big “but.”

It didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film, but it’s worth talking about. More on that in a bit.

Eddie Redmayne plays James Glaisher, a noted scientist and “aeronaut,” which was the term for people who flew in hot-air balloons before there were airplanes. He was a pioneer of meteorology, arguing mankind had the ability to predict the weather.

As played skillfully by Redmayne, Glaisher is a bookworm with an obstinate streak, a hardscrabble young striver determined to show up his scientist elders who scoff at his crackpot theories. What he lacks in charisma he makes up for in mettle.

The uppity yin to his sour yang is Felicity Jones as Amelia Rennes. She is a celebrated aeronaut pilot who shows up to her launches in pure carnival mode -- including somersaults, doggie sidekick and crowd-pleasing boasts. Rennes understands that balloon flight is as much showbiz as science, and without an audience and financial backers, nobody goes up.

She’s a brash proto-feminist who knows how to please the masses while brusquely pushing aside the all-male power structures that would limit her achievements.

Jones’ is by far the more delightful and proactive character, and the bulk of the death-defiance is performed by Rennes. If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, directed by Tom Harper from a script by Jack Thorne, you already know about the scenes where she clambers up the side of the balloon while thousands of feet in the icy air.

Clearly, this film will prove a special challenge for those with acrophobia. I can’t even get up on a 6-foot ladder without getting the willies, so you can imagine how I felt during all the yawning shots of the ground staring at us from far below.

Trust me, the CGI special effects are very convincing.

The story centers on an attempt by the British to set a new height record in 1862, after the dastardly French had taken the crown. Aeronauts would plunge into the open skies without oxygen tanks, braving frigid temperatures, howling winds and mind-twisting atmospheric conditions. More than a few died.

It was a historic achievement by Glaisher, though not terribly well remembered today. So “The Aeronauts” gives us the pleasure of rediscovering a bit of forgotten lore.

You will notice I just mentioned Glaisher and did not write “and Rennes.” Here comes the “but.”
Rennes is a completely invented figure. Glaisher did not have a female partner during his ascent.

That’s fine as far as it goes – movies are wont to change history all over the place if it serves their storytelling purpose. (For example, the real Glaisher was an established scientist in his 50s in 1862, not a boyish Redmayne lookalike.)

And it’s good to recognize the overlooked role women have played in the advancement of science and discovery over the centuries. Rennes is based on some notable real-life women aeronauts, especially Sophie Blanchard. In the movie, Rennes lost her husband in an earlier ballooning tragedy, as did Blanchard.

Except Glaisher did have an actual partner for the flight, named Henry Coxwell. And he gets written out of the story entirely.

Coxwell was also middle-aged and a dentist to boot, so not nearly as exciting as a woman daredevil performing showstopper stunts.

I’m not sure how I feel about the switcheroo. Historians should be affronted – imagine doing a movie about Lewis & Clark and they swap out Clark for a nonexistent female explorer. Certainly if I was one of Clark’s descendants, I’d be pretty irked.

But I’m here to review movies, not get all intersectional on ya.

I say “The Aeronauts” is a terrific piece of entertainment, even if it treats the historical record as dead weight, like a sand bag to be untied so the balloon can soar higher.

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