Just in time for the holiday season, Amazon Studios has released The Aeronauts, a soaring historical adventure film about the perils faced by a Victorian scientist and a balloonist attempting to fly higher than anyone before them. Granted, the characters might be a bit thinly drawn when it comes to emotional depth, and the earth-bound first act is solid, if unremarkable, period drama. However, once the film (literally) gets off the ground, it blossoms into a gripping, thoroughly entertaining epic tale of survival at punishing altitudes. Above all, the film looks spectacular; every frame is practically a canvas, painted in vibrant, almost Disney-esque hues.
(Some spoilers below.)
The Aeronauts is a fictionalized account of a historic balloon flight by pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher. He and his pilot, Henry Coxwell, made several balloon flights to measure the temperature and humidity of the upper atmosphere between 1862 and 1866. Armed with scientific instruments and bottles of brandy, Glaisher and Coxwell set a world-altitude record, reaching an estimated 38,999 feet (11,887 meters) on September 5, 1862. They were the first men to reach the atmospheric stratosphere, and they did it without the benefit of oxygen tanks, pressure suits, or a pressurized cabin.
During the flight, the men released pigeons at various altitudes to see how well they flew, recalling that those released above the three-mile mark “dropped like a stone.” They would have continued rising and likely died because the valving rope Coxwell needed to manipulate to begin their descent got tangled up with the balloon net. Coxwell had to climb out of the basket and up into the rigging to release the valve with his teeth—his hands were badly frostbitten—in order to begin their descent. By then, Glaisher had passed out. Eventually, the men landed safely (if a bit roughly) about 20 miles from their original launch point.
The film version recreates many of those elements, but while Glaisher is a primary character (played by Eddie Redmayne of The Theory of Everything) in The Aeronauts, writer/director Tom Harper opted to replace Coxwell with a fictional female character, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones, also of The Theory of Everything). It opens with a frustrated Glaisher trying in vain to convince his scientific colleagues of the potential of ballooning to enable better study of Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in more accurate weather prediction. Meanwhile, a widowed Amelia is facing pressure from her mother and sister to remarry and leave her ballooning adventures with her late husband behind her. When Glaisher offers Amelia a job piloting a balloon higher than anyone has attempted before, she is initially reluctant, but then accepts. They end up facing far more peril than they bargained for.
Up, up, and away
Harper wanted his sky-borne scenes to be as authentic as possible. These were by far the most challenging aspect of the production, since he wanted to shoot his actors in an actual balloon at 2,000 feet. According to co-producer Todd Lieberman, that involved finding someone willing and able to build an 80-foot helium-filled (as opposed to a hot air) balloon—and someone willing and able to fly it. A company called Flying Pictures, headed by Colin Prescot, obliged. Prescot also brought renowned Swedish aeronaut Per Lindstrand aboard to pilot the balloon. (Lindstrand famously made a series of transoceanic hot-air balloon flights in partnership with Sir Richard Branson.)
“I think a balloon of this kind hadn’t been built in over four decades, and this might be the first replica of a period balloon of that era ever built,” said Lieberman.
Every crew member went up in a balloon just to experience what it was like, and Felicity Jones went to Germany for gas-balloon flight training (as well as acrobatics) to prepare for her role as Amelia. For the actual filming at altitude, the pilot crouched low in the basket while cameras mounted on helicopters and drones captured the action. That really is Jones climbing up and sitting on the balloon’s hoop, although she wore a protective harness that was subsequently removed in post-production. As for the scene where Amelia must climb up the side of the ice-encrusted balloon—a stuntwoman actually performed that feat at altitude, with close-ups and other footage for the scene filmed on a sound stage outfitted with a 180-foot crane.
“The hardest part of these ballooning expeditions, we learned, is landing them,” said Lieberman. “The wind dictates where the balloon goes.” The crew relied on WhatsApp group chats and chase vehicles to follow the balloon’s path while it was making its descent to figure out where it was likely to land. “It was a less-than-ideal landing, to say the least, but we got them down safely,” said Lieberman.
“The hardest part of these ballooning expeditions, we learned, is landing them.”
While it wasn’t possible to film at 37,000 feet, the filmmakers went to great lengths to replicate those conditions on set. Redmayne spent some time in an oxygen-deprivation tank to get a feel for the effects of hypoxia. And when shooting the scenes when the balloon was freezing over, part of the set was cooled down to below freezing, while Redmayne and Jones would plunge their hands into buckets of ice before scenes.
“Not only were they acting as if they were freezing,” said Leiberman, “they actually were freezing.”
An amalgamation of history
The Aeronauts takes pains with regard to historical accuracy, although as Lieberman noted, “We weren’t making a documentary.” While Glaisher and Coxwell’s historic feat provided the basis for the main story, many other details of the fictionalized flight were taken from a book of historical ballooning accounts called Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes. Intrepid aeronauts of the past really did make a parachute of the balloon and witness butterflies at surprisingly high altitudes. And per Lieberman, an aeronaut named Charles Green—inventor of the trail rope as an aid to steering and landing a balloon, among other accomplishments—really did summit the side of a balloon, albeit at a lower altitude than is portrayed in the film.
The decision to replace Coxwell with the fictionalized Amelia proved controversial. Tthe Royal Society’s head of library, Keith Moore, told The Daily Telegraph last year, “It’s a great shame that Henry isn’t portrayed because he performed very well and saved the life of a leading scientist,” adding that he wished the film had chosen to include one of the “many deserving female scientists of the period.”
Amelia was actually inspired by several historical female aeronauts, most notably Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to find work as a professional balloonist when her balloonist husband, Jean-Pierre, died. (The account of Amelia’s husband’s death in the film was inspired by the real demise of aviator Thomas Harris in 1824.) The flamboyant couple used dogs at their launches, as portrayed in the film, and often set off fireworks. In fact, that’s how Blanchard died in 1819: during an ascent, one of the fireworks set the balloon on fire. British aeronaut Margaret Graham and American aviator Amelia Earhart were also influential as Harper was developing the character.
“The idea of two scientists sitting in a basket going up and down who shared the same basic outlook on life didn’t hold much tension,” said Lieberman. “So we decided to do an amalgamation: take the best of these different flights from the time period and find a counterpoint to James Glaisher.”
Glaisher really did struggle to raise funding for his expeditions from the Royal Society. His eventual success resulted in his becoming president of the newly formed Royal Meteorological Society just five years after his historic flight with Coxwell. In the end, The Aeronauts is an uplifting story, both literally and figuratively—just as the filmmakers intended.
The Aeronauts is now playing in theaters.