The press called her a “lady pilot,” but Amelia Earhart called herself a “tramp flyer.” She seems to have preferred “flyer” to “pilot”; perhaps it was just a manner of speech, or perhaps it was the sky she cared about more than the airplane, the act of flying rather than the mechanics of manning an aircraft. The other word she liked was “vagabonding.” As imagined in Amelia, Mira Nair’s handsome biopic, Earhart craves freedom above all: “no borders, only horizons.”
I came away from Amelia wanting to read the books on which it professes to be based, Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn and Mary S. Lovell’s The Sound of Wings. Mission accomplished? Yes and no. To the extent that Nair’s film elevates Amelia Earhart’s profile and sends curious viewers to biographies and websites to learn more, Nair and company, and Earhart advocates generally, may be pleased.
Will the film itself please Earhart fans? Hard to say. Amelia piques my curiosity more than it satisfies it. Not knowing much about Earhart, I’m surprised at how little the film surprised me. I want to read the books to find the surprises the movie left out. I found the movie a decent enough take, though I suspect the film may be subject to a law of inverse relationship of knowledge to enjoyment: The more you know about Earhart, the less satisfied you may be with the film.
The film is worth seeing, perhaps, just to see Hilary Swank as Earhart. It seems incomprehensible that Amelia is the first big-screen biopic of the pioneering feminist aviator, but the very idea of Swank as Earhart is so obviously right that it’s hard to imagine anyone else carrying an Earhart biopic. (I haven’t seen the 1994 TV movie starring Diane Keaton, but looks aside, Keaton seems all wrong. Incidentally, Amy Adams did not play Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian; she played an animated waxwork representation of Earhart, just as Robin Williams doesn’t play the real Teddy Roosevelt.)
Swank not only looks like Earhart, her whole persona — matter of fact, down to earth, blunt, driven, but not larger than life — all seem ideally suited to the Earhart mythos. Her smile, her presence, her attitude, everything seems right. Amelia has garnered obvious comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (deleted scenes from which included Jane Lynch as Earhart). The Aviator is probably a more interesting movie, but DiCaprio never embodied Howard Hughes the way Swank embodies Earhart.
It is harder to see Richard Gere as publishing magnate George P. Putnam, Earhart’s promoter and publisher, and eventually lover and husband, or Ewan MacGregor as Army pilot Gene Vidal, with whom Amelia worked in various capacities and with whom the film proposes she had an extramarital fling. In part this may be because unlike Amelia, Putnam and Vidal (the father of Gore Vidal, who appears as a boy) don’t have the same public personas which Gere and MacGregor might or might not approximate — an issue only compounded by the comparative familiarity of the two actors.
Gere does persuasively pull off Putnam’s gradual shift from professional interest in Amelia, to affection, to infatuation, to unconditional love. Amelia’s need for freedom without boundaries makes her wary of George’s attentions: “I can’t endure even a beautiful cage,” she says.
When she finally does accept his proposal of marriage, it is with the explicit proviso — in writing — that she will not hold him “to a medieval code of faithfulness,” nor consider herself bound to such a code. She even insists on a sort of one-year trial marriage, a forward-thinking prenuptial agreement that George accepts reluctantly, only because he wants Amelia on whatever terms he can get her. George believes that he will be able to make Earhart happy; the movie suggests that he succeeds, though it takes her some time to realize this.
The commercial side of Amelia Earhart is one of the more intriguing things about the story. Amelia indicates that Amelia Earhart only became Amelia Earhart because Putnam wanted a woman flyer — preferably a physically attractive one — for publicity purposes. Amelia’s initial flight over the Atlantic was a stunt, and she herself was a passenger, which needled her so much that she eventually repeated the flight solo, becoming only the second person to do so after Lindburgh.
To fund her ongoing passion for flying, Amelia does celebrity product endorsements, makes appearances, writes books (published by Putnam, of course) and even launches own brand name line of clothing, luggage and other promotional items. “The only way to finance your flying,” George reminds her, “is to make enough money to finance your flying.” Well, there you go.
I was reminded of the marketing of the Iwo Jima heroes in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, the difference being that Earhart was the primary (though not the sole) beneficiary of her own self-marketing. It’s like there are two Amelias, the private Amelia, and the public Amelia whom the private Amelia accepts as the condition for the private Amelia’s freedom.
Although the flying footage is beautifully done, I like best the scenes in which Amelia lands, arriving unexpectedly in some distant corner of the world that wasn’t expecting her, and that in some cases she didn’t expect to be. Splashing down in the coastal waters off the British Isles, she asks the locals who greet her with a Celtic chorus whether it’s an Irish custom to welcome visitors with song. “I wouldn’t know,” replies a policeman. “This is Wales!” On her second, solo trans-Atlantic flight, aiming for Paris, she arrives instead in Ireland. I would have liked to see landings like this from the locals’ perspective, with the quiet of the countryside slowly penetrated by the roar of distant engines in the sky.
The final act, on the last leg of Earhart’s foiled, fatal attempt to circumnavigate the globe, is tense and gripping, despite the foregone conclusion. The frustration of the Howland Island officers monitoring Earhart’s final transmission is haunting, and I appreciate the film’s restraint in sticking to the known facts rather than playing out one or another of the less plausible theories of her final end.
Still, if there’s something elusively incomplete about the film, I don’t think it’s the uncertainty of her fate or the incompleteness of her final flight. Amelia is a fine tribute to an American pioneer, but I feel sure that Earhart’s story merits, and would reward, a more searching and thoughtful exploration.
You can almost feel Martin Scorsese exorcising the specter of Gangs of New York in the first act of The Aviator, another leisurely two-hour, forty-five-minute exercise in lavish period Americana starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.