The movie reunites Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne onscreen in a story that is advertised as "inspired by a true adventure" - which, on the surface of it, is almost true - and it is a wonderful movie. Well written, beautifully shot, with characters in an unusual situation who overcome their own obstacles to accomplish the highest balloon flight in the History of its time. Even the sound design is more immersive than I had expected.
It's set in 1862 Victorian England, where science and exploration are relatively hot prospects and the value of research and new discoveries still has to be proven to a predominately skeptical academic community. Eddie Redmayne plays a Scientist who is concerned about the atmosphere, mainly in trying to predict weather conditions. He's essentially the first meteorologist establishing the scientific methods we use today to predict storms and hurricanes. We see him literally being laughed at during a presentation to his peers where he is trying to secure funds to take a gas balloon higher than anyone has gone before so he can take measurements of the atmosphere and conduct more research. Even the best (male) balloon pilot is there to laugh and refuse his services for this proposed ascent.
Felicity Jones plays the pilot that agrees to take him up. She's got her own misgivings, though, as the last time she was in a balloon things went very badly and her husband died. It's been two years since then and she has been grieving this entire time. Her sister is fed up with it and trying to get her a new man to marry, but Felicity isn't having it. She misses her husband and is adrift in remorse.
When her sister finally coaxes her to some random evening regalia, Eddie approaches her to ask for her help. She agrees, then she refuses, then she finally agrees for real and up they go. Now, at this point, I'll tell you that the story is broken up, told in a stylish non-linear fashion that works pretty well as far as narrative structure goes. The movie actually opens with Felicity on her way to the launch with her disapproving sister while Eddie nervously awaits alongside a very serious Investor.
We are shown right away that Felicity has some significant fear related to the loss of her husband, but she's overcoming all of that to get on the balloon and put on a show for the expectant audience that had bought tickets to this event. The balloon goes up, the people cheer, and then while we float majestically through many glorious shots of the balloon rising ever higher, the characters have moments of reflection that reveal what got them there.
Without going too deep into it, I'll simply say that it's well written material that had me engaged and enjoying most of what I was seeing. There are moments where I had to give a pass to the modernization of the culture and society of the the time - certainly women were much more restricted and oppressed than Felicity is depicted as being in this movie, but during the viewing, most of those moments are easy to ignore - far better to forget about fact-checking and enjoy the ride, and that ride is beautiful. Gorgeous. You may be wondering how many different ways a balloon in the clouds can look interesting? Well, I think you may be pleasantly surprised.
They travel through several layers of the atmosphere - proving for the first time that there are layers to the atmosphere, in fact - and then, after a particularly dramatic and thrilling life-threatening moment where they've gone too high and it's too cold and the air is too thin, they come crashing to earth in spectacular fashion. Eddie gives a speech to his newly impressed and subdued peers, and in the end, thanks to Felicity, everybody wins. At the last, we see Felicity and Eddie going up in another balloon, staring lovingly at each other, and we are left believing that they will live happily ever after.
Great movie. Gorgeous. Well acted, very well written, happy to recommend this to anyone.
Then the Producers came out for their Q&A part of the evening, and the question came up: how historically accurate is the movie? The poster says "inspired by a true adventure", so what in this movie is true? What was adapted?
Well, there was a scientist named James Glaisher, played by Eddie, who was a meteorologist and balloonist, who took measurements which led to a greater understanding of the atmosphere, and various applications benefitting many fields. Aside from that, the rest is bullshit.
All of it.
The Producers explained that the actual event was done by two men who essentially went up, took measurements, and then came down. James Glaisher did go up in a balloon higher than anyone else had done at the time, but he did so with another balloonist, Henry Coxwell. In fact, they made similar ascents 28 times, including the one that inspired this movie where they almost died.
Well, that's not very cinematic, is it? Two old British guys tinkering in the clouds - I'm bored already!
Far more interesting to create a woman that never existed, obviously. One that conforms more to contemporary politics rather than the reality of the period in which all this took place - and create an adventure around her helping this Scientist with his nerdy books and instruments.
The character Felicity plays is actually a composite of three different women: the first solo balloonist from England, Margaret Graham, a French balloonist named Sophie Blanchard, who lost her husband in a similar fashion to what we see in this movie, and also tragically died when fireworks hit her balloon (we see fireworks in the movie, but they don't hit the balloon), and finally, Amelia Earhart, who the Producers confirm is where Felicity's character gets her name.
I get that. I can understand those decisions from a production perspective. But I have to ask: was it necessary to re-write History to make this movie? If two men going up in a balloon to take measurements isn't interesting, why use that that specific event at all? Why not make up another adventure utilizing the same basic story? Since you've gone through the trouble of creating a fictional, composite character for the female Pilot, why not re-create your male Scientist? In fact, since you've pretty much already done that anyway, why tie him to the real life James Glaisher at all?
Your story would still be "inspired", only moreso, so what's with actual man and fictional woman in this pseudo-historical science adventure mashup...?
No need to ask the Producers that question because during the Q&A they made it clear they were onboard from the beginning. The script was presented to them this way, and they had no question that this was how to tell the story. Who cares about History? These people are all dead anyway, so why bother with the facts, their legacy, their personal challenges and achievements or any of that nonsense? This was a good way to get Eddie and Felicity back in a movie together, and that became the goal early on. Once those two were in, securing the budget was much easier, and really, as with everything in movies these days, that ambition overwrites any hope of historical accuracy.
So why bother connecting it to anything historical in the first place?
What's most frustrating about all of this is, during the movie, I kept reflecting on those moments where Felicity is doing something really amazing and daring and I would think to myself, "did she really do that?" In other words, before I found out it was all bullshit, I was really ready to believe that there was this amazing woman who really lived, and really survived such challenges. Maybe a few embellishments, sure, but I was willing - no, I was expecting this woman to be real, with the dangers being the only embellishments.
For example, the heroic escape: did this woman actually climb out on a balloon and break the ice on top so they could descend to a survivable atmosphere? Because that would be pretty damn incredible for a person to do at any altitude, and this movie is "inspired by a true adventure", so did she - or anybody at all - ever do actually do that?
Well, the stunt woman doubling Felicity, Helen Bailey - who is inexplicably absent from IMDB for her work on this project - actually climbed to the top of the balloon at 2000 feet in the air to get this breathtaking shot for the movie. Aside from that, no. Nope. Never happened. Maybe the incredible Helen Bailey should have a little more recognition for this achievement then...?
Felicity does many of her stunts, true - the Producers confirm that's really her hanging off the basket as the balloon goes up - but let's give credit where it's due, please. Helen Bailey literally puts her life on the line to make movies as a career choice. Very few Actors do anything close to that on a regular basis, and the stunt she accomplishes in this movie is what makes makes the climax of that scene so breathtaking. Glad the Producers remembered her & her work during the Q&A that day.
So, basically, the Aeronauts is about a real event, kinda, but replaces one actual man with a fictional composite of three women to tell their almost entirely fictional story. It may be "inspired", but with the exception of one person who actually existed and did similar things, the entire movie is fabricated, ignoring any other relationships this real person had, what they did, or how they did it.
Why they thought it was a good idea to go ahead and revise History the way they have appears to be another example of the "feelings over facts" mentality that seems to be dominating our society these days - and the worst of it is, they did it without even questioning what they were doing or why.
It's like when I saw Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks. Very well made, well acted, based on a real event where these Somali Pirates took over a commercial ship and kidnapped the Captain for ransom. I thought Tom Hanks was fantastic. Totally Oscar worthy performance. And then I saw the reports from the crew members who served under the actual Captain Phillips on that day, saying that they were outraged at the depiction of events, making it clear that Captain Phillips, in their view, was entirely responsible for the ship maneuvering into dangerous waters and being overrun. They were incensed to see him portrayed as a Hero doing his best to save his Crew when in fact he had put them all in jeopardy.
But Tom Hanks plays Heroes, and that's what Captain Phillips needed to be for the movie to work.
I can't recommend that movie to anybody knowing that it's mostly bullshit.
While I can't deny that the Aeronauts is an amazing movie that I really liked, once I found out that it's about 95% bullshit - far more than this revised Captain Phillips effort - I have a real problem recommending it to anybody without the warning that this is a complete fabrication, with only the most minimal nod to the men who actually accomplished these ascents.
I'm far more interested in seeing movies about these actual women now. What were their lives like? Why not tell their stories instead of using them to make up one fictional woman? Especially when this fiction is deliberately intended to "liven up" History rather than respect it?
And before any smirking thought like, "well, see, then it's a good thing because you never would have been interested in these three women if they hadn't made this one composite character - Ha!" rumbles any further, allow me to simply say: I had no interest at all to begin with about balloons, meteorology, any of it. Curious, sure. Thinking I would see something about real people who did something with balloons. You could have told me ten women organized a global balloon launch in the name of the suffragette movement and said it was "inspired by a true event" and I would still have been willing to believe that actually happened, but it didn't.
Further along those lines, nowhere in the press I have seen does it acknowledge that Felicity's character is a composite. I wouldn't have known that if the Producers hadn't named them during the Q&A session. So, much like Helen Bailey, these women receive little or no publicity at all for their contributions to this "inspired" character.
Why are they making up History to suit their narrative instead of the other way around? Especially when they seem to be counting on the notion that most of their audience is too lazy to fact check anything these days anyway? It would seem that the greater responsibility is on ensuring that this real event is depicted accurately, and respect given towards the people who actually achieved these very real advancements in science.
I mean, I was willing to accept it with The Greatest Showman because it was a musical. It was already fantasy from the outset, even though it was "based on real events". It was obvious from the first song that this was not going to be very accurate, or even realistic. It was all show pieces and dance numbers and the music was all about Love and Acceptance - at the end of that movie, the audience applauded enthusiastically & so did I.
We all applauded at the end of the Aeronauts - but at this type of event, that's kind of expected. I couldn't gauge the audience reaction to the Producer's revelations, but I can say it made me lament the loss of respect for real human accomplishments. Where is the pride of daring and achievement that lead to advances that literally change how we live?
Not cinematic enough?
When was the last Amelia Earhart movie? Has anyone ever considered a movie about these Women Balloonists? Even a documentary? Why not? How about a movie about Stuntwomen like Helen Bailey? So many stories of actual women - pirates, pilots, scientists, adventurers - all real, all true, all waiting to be told. Instead, this movie cherry picks the lives of three different, amazing women to create this one fictional woman and then forces that hybrid into a false "historic narrative" adventure movie.
Using the disclaimer "Inspired by a true Adventure" doesn't cut it for this one. This was a composited adventure, inspired by one significant event accomplished by two men, and several different events selected from the lives of a variety of women. Somehow, that solution seems a bit more sexist and disappointing than the even more simplistic goal of creating an original, female Adventurer supported by any and all kinds of original characters for a unique adventure set in Victorian England - which frankly, after knowing all of this, would have been my preference. It would have been easy to do since most of the work was already done, and you could have started a franchise of adventure movies with this likable pair of Actors.
Instead, I'm conflicted for liking a deliberately manipulative, unnecessarily revisionist, hybrid piece of cinema that caters to a contemporary audience by treating History like it's source material that can be altered and manipulated like any other piece of fiction. As I was discussing this movie with my friends afterwards, one of them concluded: "It's all good except for this one big lie at the beginning".
And that's it. It may be advertised as inspired by a true adventure, but you just have to accept before you even buy the ticket that it is all bullshit. Nothing about this story is Historically accurate, save for the name and occupation of this one man, and certainly aside from that, none of it is true.
Like, when Indiana Jones met Hitler in the Last Crusade. It was accidental, random, and becomes a joke when Hitler thinks Indy's a fan and autographs his notebook. It had no impact on History at all. It was so singular and random we could giggle that such a thing might have happened to someone, even though we automatically know this interaction never actually took place. It's all just for fun.
In the Aeronauts, the Writers & Producers intentionally say: forget Henry Coxwell. We need a woman. She needs to be an Adventurer, the Hero without whom none of this succeeds, and we'll make up the rest from there. And they did, History be damned. But they still want to attach their story to a singular Historical event and include an actual person who accomplished these things with an entirely different person who had the misfortune of being another man.
So, there you go.
If you want to see it, please do - visually, it's beautiful. The cinematography alone deserves a theatrical experience. It's well acted and it's a fine adventure. It's just bullshit. All of it. Go in with the mentality that you're watching RDJ's Sherlock Holmes, maybe one of the Marvel movies, whatever. But don't go thinking that you're going to see anything rooted in History, or that you might learn something about science, or facts, or any of that nonsense.
The Aeronauts is an adventure movie plain and simple, and that should be fine to everyone. As long as you care as little or less about History than the Producers do, you should be fine. Forget about facts, scientific and academic achievements, just enjoy the adventure, it's fine.
Don't bother looking up these people - or maybe do now that you know who the actual women were that were used to construct the fictional woman in this movie - each of whom should have some sort of recognition for their accomplishments and well deserved place in History.
Can't we have more movies featuring original female characters without having to change genders or revise History? I think it's possible, and I don't understand why it's appears to be so difficult, especially these days -
Stop thinking. Enjoy the pretty clouds.
Good movie. History doesn't matter.
It's all fine.
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