The Aeronauts Is A Mostly True Story — & That’s Got A Few People Upset

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne are back together again in The Aeronauts, another dazzling biographical drama set in 1862 (we loved them in The Theory of Everything, the story of Stephen and Jane Hawking). This time Jones plays aeronaut Amelia Wren, and Redmayne portrays James Glaisher, a meteorologist. Both are determined to break the world flight altitude in a coal gas-fueled balloon. While Glaisher's goal is to study the possibility of weather forecasting, Amelia's ambitions stem from the loss of her husband, Pierre, an aeronaut who dies in flight. Both are portrayed as brave individuals who go against the grain in order to discover the unknown.
Wren and Glaisher end up ascending so high in the sky that eventually, the dangerous altitude threatens their lives as the balloon struggles to stay afloat in violent, freezing temperatures.
While The Aeronauts is inspired by real events, it’s not 100 percent historically accurate.

Amelia Wren Is Actually Based On Real-Life Aeronaut Henry Coxwell

While aeronaut, meteorologist, and astronomer James Glaisher did exist, and did break the world balloon flight record, he didn’t do so with partner-in-crime Amelia Wren.
Amelia is actually based on aeronaut Henry Coxwell, Glaisher’s true co-balloon pilot. Coxwell became a professional aeronaut in 1848, and made many trips all over the world. In 1862, Glaisher sought him out so that the British Association for the Advancement of Science could study the weather and atmosphere, as well as the possibility of forecasting the weather (yup, there was a time you couldn’t look at your phone’s weather app). Although the trailer shows us a glimpse of it happening, Glaisher really did pass out and his final barometer reading before doing so was an altitude of 29,000 ft. Coxwell apparently couldn’t feel his hands by the end of their journey, but was able to save them both by pulling the valve-cord with his teeth like a total badass (this allowed the balloon to descend and get them safely to land). It was later calculated that they reached somewhere between 35,000 and 37,000 feet in the sky.
Amelia Wren also takes into consideration a few other real people. The Aeronauts screenwriter Jack Thorne also based Amelia’s character on Sophie Blanchard. She was a French aeronaut and daredevil pilot who died in 1819 after she launched a firework that blew up her hot air balloon. Blanchard’s husband, Jean-Pierre, was also an aeronaut who died during a balloon flight (Jean-Pierre was the inspiration for the fictional Amelia’s late husband in the film).

The Real James Glaisher Story Is Changed In The Aeronauts, Too

The Aeronauts also took liberties with Glaisher’s character. In the film, Glaisher’s theories about weather forecasting are belittled by colleagues. While Amelia is dealing with the tragic death of her husband by literally flying away from her sorrows, Glaisher’s mission seems to be almost out of spite in order to prove all the naysayers wrong.
In real life, Glaisher was a founding member of the Meteorological Society as well as the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain. In fact, the British Association for the Advancement of Science actually wanted Glaisher to fly the balloon in order to conduct studies around the atmosphere and weather. 

The Royal Society Is Upset With The Aeronauts' Level Of Accuracy

While The Aeronauts substituted Coxwell with the fictional Amelia to reposition the narrative to be more progressive, some believe it wasn’t necessary to rewrite history — especially since Coxwell’s bravery was so lauded and well-documented. According to The Telegraph, Keith Moore, Head of Library at the Royal Society (the Royal Society is the U.K.’s national academy of sciences, and it’s the oldest science institution in the world) stated, “It’s a great shame that Henry isn’t portrayed because he performed very well and saved the life of a leading scientist.” He added, “There were so many deserving female scientists of that period who haven’t had films made about them. Why not do that instead?”
But Harper wanted to modernize the real-life story. “I wanted it to not be two middle-aged men in a basket. I wanted it to be reflective for a contemporary audience,” Harper tells The List.
Harper responded to the Royal Society’s feedback that there are other female scientists who deserve screen time by saying, “It’s true. There were female scientists around the time, but not in the Royal Society, because they weren’t allowed in the Royal Society until 1948 or something, and even to this day, only eight percent of the Royal Society is female.” I mean, touché.
Maybe those who criticize the fudging of historical accuracy in The Aeronauts are missing the point. While the real-life Coxwell certainly deserves recognition for his bravery, it’s not like The Aeronauts is the first biographical film that’s been dramatized. And honestly, we just want to see what happens when two humans float 35,000 feet into the air. 
The Aeronauts will be playing in select theaters December 6 and will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime December 20.
Related Content:

More from Movies

R29 Original Series