Some 25 years ago, when we lived in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, my wife and I got up very early on a foggy Saturday morning to drive over an hour to rural Maryland for our first hot air balloon ride. When we arrived at 5am, the pilot was waiting for us, his balloon inflated and ready to rise. After some very brief instructions, we climbed into the basket with him and suddenly — without warning — we were off the ground.
With a crew member in a chase van following below, we soared over the treetops and the fog, propelled only by a slight breeze. I’d been warned in advance to wear a hat because, at 6’4″, the top of my head was mere inches away from the the burners that used propane gas tanks to propel heat upward into the balloon. The first couple of times the pilot pulled that cord, I could feel the intense warmth nearby, until I finally asked him to give me a moment’s warning so I could duck down. He did, and the rest of the flight was magical.
There was something almost eerie about the silence that surrounded us as we watched the fog dissipate in the morning sunshine, giving us a beautiful view of the entire region. We stayed aloft for about an hour. Then the pilot coordinated a possible landing spot with the guy in the van and warned us that we were about to experience the bumpy part of ballooning. Because there’s no real way to steer a hot air balloon, or have much control over its descent, he told us that, as we approached the open field he had chosen, we should lean way back in the basket so it wouldn’t topple over, and that we would probably bounce a couple of times. He didn’t use the word “jolt,” but that’s what it was, forcing a few seconds of breath-holding before the whole contraption came to a complete stop.
The end of the ride didn’t negate the wonder of floating through the air, so a decade later I jumped at the chance to do it again, this time with both my wife and daughter, as guests in a rehearsal run several balloonists do each year a few days before The Great Forest Park Balloon Race. That led to yet another opportunity to ride in the basket of one of the race entries, but when that one came down extra roughly on Art Hill, I declared that my hot air ballooning days were over.
I thought of all this while watching “The Aeronauts,” a new movie starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne.
It’s the story of James Glaisher, who in 1862 was a founding member of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, and later its Meteorological Society. As a scientist, he wanted to observe the differences in the layers of Earth’s atmosphere by taking a balloon up higher than anyone ever had. The goal was to discover a new, more reliable way to predict the weather by understanding what was happening thousands of feet above the ground. Since he was not a balloonist, he hired Amelia Wren, who had been aloft with her late husband several times until his tragic death. She reluctantly agreed to be Glaisher’s pilot, and the film opens with her arrival, in full showboat mode, as she plays to a crowd of some 10,000 who gathered to watch their ascent.
The rest of the story follows their flight in almost real time, with flashbacks to the incidents that drove each of the characters to that point, and onscreen graphics that mark both the elapsed time and the altitude they reached. For much of the movie, Jones and Redmayne are the only people onscreen, so it relies entirely on their chemistry, which they had already established as co-stars of the 2014 Stephen Hawking biography, “The Theory Of Everything” (for which both were Oscar-nominated, and he won). While Redmayne once again plays a brilliant scientist, it is Jones’ work as the courageous Wren that really stands out here.
The movie isn’t entirely historically accurate, in that Wren is a fictional composite of other female balloonists of that era. But credit writer/director Tom Harper for making her the brave heroine, rather than the cliched woman-in-distress-saved-by-a-man. He also gets the science of “The Aeronauts” right, including the fact that it’s not a hot air balloon like the ones I’ve been in. Europeans of that era, the first balloonists, used hydrogen and helium (two lighter-than-air gasses) to fill the balloon and lift the basket — without the need for burners like the ones that nearly scalded my scalp.
While “The Aeronauts” may not inspire you to take to the air in a balloon, it is a fun, thrilling adventure, suitable for family audiences and full of magnificent vistas, computer-generated though they may be. Produced by Amazon Studios, it opens in theaters for a two-week run today, and will stream on Amazon Prime thereafter — but because of its scope, I recommend seeing it on the big screen if you can.
I give “The Aeronauts” an 8 out of 10.