When ` The Aeronauts’ released, there were those who disapproved of how the film mixed fact with fiction.
The 2019 film tells the story of a balloon ascent by scientist James Glaisher and pilot, Amelia Wren. They reach nearly 37,000 feet up in the sky, an altitude never before touched by human beings. The year is 1862, more than 90 years before the first ascent of Everest (29,028 feet), perhaps the nearest elevation one can compare in terms of exposure to low-oxygen environment and pretty cold temperature. The balloon’s occupants don’t have the benefit of enclosed chamber, electronic communication to stay in touch with those on the ground; they don’t even have clothing appropriate for those heights.
You keep warm wearing oil skins and in the film, Glaisher is shown to have traded his skins for bringing aboard more scientific equipment. At height, the scientist slowly starts to lose his head to oxygen deprivation. He pushes for greater and greater elevation even as the dangers in doing so are evident to the pilot. Eventually he passes out, leaving Amelia Wren alone to make sure that the still rising balloon is somehow forced into descent mode. This she achieves by climbing atop the balloon and opening its gas valves, something she was unable to do from within the safety of the passenger basket because the balloon’s mechanisms got frozen at altitude.
The depiction of these aerial scenes is marvelous and edge-of-the-seat. The actors have done a good job. Felicity Jones lives her role as Amelia. Eddie Redmayne as scientist-adventurer appears an unorthodox choice at first. Going by cinematic tradition, such roles are usually played by the physically dominant, tough-looking sort. But it works beautifully – and there is probably a message for stereotyping in there – for Redmayne is quite convincing in his role bridging the nerdy and the adventurous. It is the early days of meteorology. In the film, Glaisher goes up doubted by his peers; his belief that the weather can be predicted is laughed at. He returns from the balloon flight with knowledge that the atmosphere isn’t one homogeneous layer, it is composed of various strata, each different from the other. Additionally, the two aeronauts have a flight record to their credit – the highest altitude yet reached.
The problem is – a similar flight actually happened. James Glaisher existed in real life. Amelia Wren is fiction. Going by information about the film available on the Internet, the film makers created the character (ingredients drawn from real life female aeronauts) to address gender imbalance in the scientific fraternity and also connect the film to a contemporary audience. But doing so, they did injustice to the person who was actually there on that flight with Glaisher. That person was Henry Coxwell, an aeronaut and writer on ballooning. On the ascent Glaisher lost consciousness (as shown in the film); the last reading reported on his barometer was 29,000 feet. It was up to Coxwell then to engineer their descent. Having lost sensation in his hands due to the extreme cold, he is said to have opened the gas valve by pulling the relevant chord with his teeth. Both men lived to tell the tale. As do Glaisher and Amelia in the movie, except that on celluloid, there is no Coxwell. Replacing him is the lovable, adventurous woman played by Felicity Jones. The critics have a point.
If you can be alright with the above mentioned flaw (call it artistic license), then ` The Aeronauts’ is an enjoyable film. It is not even-paced. Given the private backdrops of the main protagonists unfolds as the story goes along, there is plenty of back and forth between distinctly different worlds. The world of flight is clear; it is a set of situations and protocols to follow. On ground, life lost to social rituals rolls along at a pace betraying no similar urgency or direction. The back and forth hops can tire. After a brief life in theaters, where according to Wikipedia it grossed $ 3.3 million against production budget of $ 40 million, the film shifted to streaming on Amazon. That’s where I saw it in March 2020. I watched it over several days, partly due to the uneven pace of the movie and partly due to my poor attention span as resident of world with multiple distractions. But if you ask me what I thought of this film, I would say: wonderful.
Towards the end of ` The Aeronauts’ you hear Amelia say, “ you don’t change the world simply by looking at it. You change it through the way you choose to live in it.’’ What made this film attractive to me is how it leveraged modern technology to bring alive the challenges and hardships felt by pioneers. Flying is so common nowadays that very few among us pause to imagine what the sensation may have been like for early entrants in the field. None of us possibly think of how it may have been for balloonists. They didn’t dash around at speed like those in planes. But moving at a slower pace, they touched some fantastic altitudes. (remember India’s Dr Vijaypat Singhania, who reached 69,852 feet above sea level in a hot air balloon in 2005? He took off from Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Race Course; the landing was near Nashik). It is estimated that the Glaisher-Coxwell flight may have touched 35,000-37,000 feet; that is several thousand feet higher than Everest. Today we look back at the first ascent of Everest in 1953 and applaud Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary for managing the task with what equipment they had. The plot of ` The Aeronauts’ is 90 years before Everest was successfully climbed. Discount the flaw critics zeroed in on, take home the experience. Not to mention – a character called Amelia Wren.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)