The Aeronauts is one-half survival tale and one-half historical drama, based loosely on the story of James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) and Henry Coxwell’s ascent to a then-record height of 37,000, accomplished in a hot air balloon. Except for The Aeronauts, Coxwell has been replaced by the fictional Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), an amalgamation of real women pilots with a healthy dose of inspiration from Sophie Blanchard, who was as much show-woman as pioneering aeronaut. The Aeronauts begins with the launch of James and Amelia’s historic ascent, and then cuts between their trip and the events that led to them ballooning together in the name of science. Somewhere in all this, there is probably an interesting movie, but The Aeronauts is not it.
It is, however, very nice to look at. Directed by Tom Harper (who does less visually exciting work but better storytelling in this year’s Scottish country music film Wild Rose) and shot by Harper’s collaborator George Steele, The Aeronauts has a lot of wide-open sky vistas and colorful balloon shots. (In fact, if you’re planning a baby nursery, this movie has plenty of inspo.) The costumes by Alexandra Byrne are also notable, especially the evolution of Amelia’s outfit, which starts as a colorful gown and transforms into practical work gear before reverting to something more appropriate for a Victorian lady. The Aeronauts is a craft movie first and foremost, with all of the technical and artistic elements delivering on the highest level. If only the story could keep up.
The main problem is the protagonist. James Glaisher is a scientist, and a pioneering meteorologist. Stories about pioneers are always interesting, but the fact is, James spends most of the movie checking the weather. It is not enthralling. Amelia is the one doing all the work of piloting the balloon and trying to keep them alive as the air grows thin and intolerably cold. The survivalist story is mostly hers, as she commits death-defying acts of heroism to keep her and James alive. The single best scene in the movie is the one in which she climbs the balloon to break ice off a vent. I suppose we need James Glaisher for this story because this balloon flight broke the ascension record, but checking the weather is not terribly cinematic, which makes me wonder if any story about ballooning would do. Like why can’t The Aeronauts just be a biopic of Sophie Blanchard, or a film about the women pioneers of balloon flight? Do we even need the weather guy?
But this also feeds into another issue with this film—the erasure of Henry Coxwell. I am all for more films about women, especially excavating the women pioneers overlooked in history. But The Aeronauts takes liberties with Glaisher’s story that are uncomfortable at best. I don’t want those stories about women at the expense of erasing the real accomplishments of actual people who lived—that’s what men have been doing to women for actual thousands of years, and while turnabout is fair play, it doesn’t really make anything better. Don’t overwrite a figure like Henry Coxwell with a fake lady who never existed, just tell women’s stories, too.
By all means, make The Aeronauts about the weather nerd and his pilot who ascended almost to the stratosphere. But also tell Sophie Blanchard’s story, or tell the story of Elisabeth Thible, who dressed like Minerva and was the first woman to pilot a balloon flight. Plugging a woman into a man’s role in a by-the-numbers movie like The Aeronauts just feels like doing the bare minimum to satisfy the “fad” of diversity in cinema. It doesn’t feel like a real investment in the narratives of women, or a commitment to truly diversify the stories we tell. Which is no offense to Felicity Jones, who does perfectly fine work as Amelia Wren. Redmayne, too, is good as long as his mannered acting style doesn’t bother you. This is entirely an issue of why this story got made and got made in this way.
I fully understand the impulse to dress up a story about a guy checking the thermometer, but The Aeronauts begs the question of what use is a historical biopic if the history is so dramatized it is barely recognizable to actual history. We should never take movies as actual history lessons, but there is a point where a historical recreation has no value because it’s not recreating anything, it’s just making a bunch of sh-t up. The Aeronauts, with its invented pilot, treads close to that line. If you have to invent an interesting woman to dress up a story about a boring man, maybe just cut out the man and tell the story of the interesting woman.