Plot of ‘Aeronauts’ and poetic license full of hot air

Dec 6, 2019, 2:02 PM

In the 1860s, the science of meteorology was in its infancy and many brave men (and a few women) risked their lives in hot-air balloons to further the art of forecasting the weather. This is relatively virgin territory for the movies, so I applaud filmmaker Tom Harper for zeroing in on such little-known escapades in “The Aeronauts.” What’s inexplicable to me is how he could take such fresh material and make it seem so stale so quickly.

The movie is based on, or at least inspired by, the real-life 1862 balloon expedition of English scientist James Glaisher who sought to better understand the skies and at the same time wrest the altitude record away from the French. He sought funding from a very unsympathetic scientific community.

“Gentleman, to predict the weather could save hundreds of thousands of lives.”
“I ask for funding into my own expedition into the skies.”
“We are scientists, not fortune tellers.”

As a last resort, Glaisher turns to Amelia Wren, a well-to-do widow of a fellow balloonist and a pilot in her own right.

“Ms. Wren, I need to make studies of the air.”
“I’m not a coachman for hire.”
“But you are the only person who could fly us higher than anyone as ever been.”

Wren, of course, eventually comes around and the two of them are soon off on the experimental balloon ride of their lives. They’re something of an odd couple – he’s a strictly-by-the-books scientist, she more of a daredevil show-off. But as the ride gets more and more harrowing, they have to learn to work together or they’ll both perish.

“If you won’t listen to me, listen to that.”
“Not one of my readings suggested a storm.”
“Well, that’s what it is. And we’re inside the cumular, which is precisely where we shouldn’t be.”
“Don’t worry. She’s not made of conductive material, so we won’t be hit by lightning.”
“And if we are struck, gas will explode so we won’t live long enough to meet proper.”

As the film’s trailer shows, Wren performs some spectacular feats, at one point even scaling a now frozen balloon 30 thousand feet above the ground. (Imagine scaling a moving Mount Everest.) Truth be known, Wren out-performs Glaisher at just about every turn. What a great aspirational role model for girls everywhere.

But as amazing as some of the dangers the two of them face are, there’s not enough material to justify a nearly two hour movie that’s mostly set in a basket. The film’s frequent breaks to luxuriate in the visual splendor of a hot air balloon flying high in the sky contribute to the sense that it’s not just the air that is thin, but also the plot.

But hey, at least we learn some history. Or maybe not. It turns out Amelia Wren is a completely made-up person! The role model for the ages is as fictional as Pippi Longstocking. Glaisher did indeed have a pilot on his historic, record-breaking flight and his name was Henry Coxwell. A man, I can only presume.

Of course, movies shouldn’t be required to be completely historically accurate. Poetic license serves an important aesthetic function. But to create a fake proto-feminist heroine and encourage us to revel in her exploits in a movie about a specific event in history seems like an unnecessary cheat. That balloon is not the only thing full of hot air.

My solution? Turn it into a children’s movie, fictionalize both characters and use them as role models to teach kids about balloon flight and early weather forecasting.

Tom Tangney on KIRO Radio

Tom Tangney

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Plot of ‘Aeronauts’ and poetic license full of hot air