The Aeronauts (2019)

Directed by Tom Harper

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The Aeronauts is satisfying.  Half of it is a pure survival story right up there with some of the better ones (like The MartianAll is LostGravity) while the other half struggles to push past constructed melodrama and instead leans into the same emotionally manipulative qualities as what we’d consider Oscar bait.  In other words half of the movie is riveting, visceral and a thrill ride while the other half is too concerned with announcing its own importance.

The story involves an air acrobat, Amelia (Felicity Jones), and a scientist, James (Eddie Redmayne), who aim to set the world record for highest–well they take a hot air balloon higher than anyone else ever has.

The story is structured around the 70 or so minute flight, so that it occurs almost in real time as you watch the film.  It’s between the moments of heightened danger or character development that we cut back into the past to see how arrived here in the first place.  Given the genuine wonder and terror created by the scenes in the hot air balloon and the ways we learn about the characters amidst their journey, all those other moments on the ground and in their history feel all the more irrelevant, except to fill out the movie’s runtime.

The balloon scenes are so good that I wish the film limited the story to only these two characters in only this condensed amount of time.  It would be all the more noteworthy as something of an experiment, something like All is Lost or Gravity wherein we never see or hear from anyone away from the protagonist.  We are stuck with them, along for the same thrilling ride.

Jones and Redmayne are so good here too.  They’re magnetic even if a little over the top, at least in ways meant specifically to generate conflict just to keep things interesting, in case they’re not.  She is an entertainer first and foremost, and he is a man of science, made insecure by the ways in which the scientific community has mocked his theory that the weather can be predicted.  Early in the film they will exchange barbs when he laments her showiness to the crowd as they take off, and she will tell him to loosen up.  As predictable as it may be, I found their rapid verbal back and forth as engaging as a couple musicians performing together onstage.

But this is an action/adventure movie, I suppose at its core more in line with the Bogart/Hepburn pairing in The African Queen.  So thinking about it in that way, well sh*t why can’t this be great?  It’s proudly melodramatic, the two protagonists are great, and then the action is sincerely thrilling, aside from a few CGI shots early on that don’t look so authentic.

So hey, good movie.  Even if some of the character drama is contrived, maybe that’s not a bad thing if it’s as fun as it is.

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