On my last trip to London, I visited St Paul’s and ascended the 528 steps to the Golden Gallery, 280 feet from the cathedral floor. It took my breath away and, truth be told, scared me half to death. The Aeronauts, on Amazon Prime, tells the story of meteorologist James Glaisher and aeronaut (ie balloonist) Amelia Rennes who attempt to break the altitude record for science and glory.
If you’re as afraid of heights as I am, you may find the early portions of their ascent tough going. CGI can make things almost too real, and rising above the earth tens of thousands of feet in a basket is not my idea of fun. Still, the movie works fairly well, and, once the viewer grows accustomed to the heights, it proves entertaining.
The Aeronauts is, the credits say, “inspired by a true story” – a half-truth if there ever was one. Based on the book Falling Upwards: How We Took To the Air by historian par excellence Richard Holmes, the movie plays fast and loose with the facts. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a young scientist (in history, 53), aspires to go up in a balloon not simply to break the French altitude record, but to take readings of the atmosphere to predict weather. Trouble is, he’s never been up in a balloon before and needs someone to pilot him skyward. That someone is Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones), a purely fictional character, who is an experienced balloonist.
With some fanfare, up they go. At first, except for a terrifying storm, not much happens beyond a few readings of temperature, barometric pressure and altitude. Where, then, is the drama and character development? The solution to this emerges from a series of flashbacks: of Amelia’s mourning for her late husband, of her sister’s attempts to, as it were, ground her; of James’s efforts to persuade sceptical scientists to sponsor his expedition; and of his parents’ doubts. Naturally, the characters gain depth through these glimpses into their pasts, but none of it is provably true.
The real excitement comes when they rise – against Amelia’s advice – beyond 31,000 feet and James becomes comatose and frostbitten. With the pull-valve necessary for descent frozen, Amelia must climb to the top of the balloon to fix the problem – a crisis again of doubtful historicity, but it’s thrilling to watch.
The Aeronauts is mostly baloney, but enjoyable baloney. However, it would have made more sense for the “inspired” writers to have created purely fictional characters and let suspension of disbelief take its course. History it ain’t; entertainment it is.
Dr Carl C Curtis III is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia
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