Amelia Has Me Flying High!

Running time 111 minutes
Written by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan
Directed by Mira Nair
Starring Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Cherry Jones

When Amelia Earhart, the world’s most famous aviatrix, disappeared in midair on July 2, 1937, somewhere over the Pacific between New Guinea and a Howland Island refueling station, 22,000 miles into the first equatorial flight around the world, she became the greatest unsolved mystery in aviation history. Why has it taken so long to get her story on the screen? Shirley MacLaine tried in vain for years, and others experienced the kind of daunting challenges that could only be equaled by Amelia herself. Here, at last, is the biopic we’ve been waiting for, neatly wrapped up in a broad but sketchy screenplay by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, directed by India’s Mira Nair and starring diligent, indefatigable two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank. It has beautiful cinematography, a star performance that is shocking in its authenticity, a careful eye for nuance and detail and an irresistible blend of action and romance that should spell automatic success. I am sad to report that the one thing Amelia doesn’t have is excitement. The real Amelia had gonads. Amelia has none. It’s a respectable film that is too meticulous to be dull, but the way Ms. Swank plays her, she’s an icon so aware of her self-important image that she couldn’t be blasted out of her complacency with a hydrogen bomb.

The real Amelia had gonads.

This Amelia is a spirited, dauntless, reckless woman with blinders on, but curiously unemotional even in the face of the ultimate crisis. When she runs out of fuel and faces her own mortality, her tough, heavy-drinking and basically unshakable navigator, Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), sweats, shakes and starts praying. But Amelia is as stoic as Lincoln. You want to pinch her. The light dawns. Maybe it’s this sense of marble-faced, dispassionate tranquility that made a cinematic dossier on the life of Amelia Earhart so resistant to adaptation in the past. There is evidence here that despite her heroics, she just wasn’t the stuff of movie heroines. You don’t really learn much about her growing up in Kansas. You just know she’s in love with the freedom of flying (cut to birds), the independence of the sky (cut to clouds) and the beauty of airplanes (other girls were attracted to boys; Amelia hung out in hangars). Following the success of Lindbergh, she finds the key to fame in a man’s profession when she is sponsored by eccentric publishing tycoon George Putnam (Richard Gere) to become the first lady pilot to cross the Atlantic, but gets no further than a segment from Boston to Newfoundland. The movie chronicles the weather problems and near-death escapes from open doors that would have sent other women to the nearest secretarial school for safety. Not Amelia. On her first solo Atlantic crossing, in 1932, from Boston to Ireland, she lands by mistake in a sheep pasture in Wales, but it results in worldwide publicity, dinner at the White House, endorsements for Eastman Kodak, a series of best-selling books, her own brand of Amelia Earhart luggage, a line of fashion styles at Macy’s and a close, lasting friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones), whom she takes for midnight rides in the cockpit. Idolized, celebrated and toasted as “Lady Lindy,” she makes enough money to finance her flying expeditions and purchase the love of her life—the famed twin-engine, orange and silver Lockheed L-10 Electra airplane in which she eventually disappears in 1937. She believes in herself to the exclusion of sex, marriage and the distraction of human relationships, but finally manages to have two affairs—with the controversial Putnam, whom she reluctantly marries in 1931, and with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), aeronautics executive and the father of Gore Vidal. Both affairs have to be predicated on the promise of independence and a minimum of emotion. (Amelia loves her Electra more than her husband or her lover.) She won’t rest until she’s flown around the globe, although many women pilots had died trying it. Despite faulty landing gear, electrical storms, sleep deprivation and other health risks, she and Fred Noonan leave Miami in June 1937, backed by Putnam’s love, loyalty and money. Driven and determined to prove something to the world—and to herself—Amelia almost makes it, ignoring Noonan’s advice, taking off from Calcutta in a monsoon and shrugging off her detractors’ accusations of being a crazy, irresponsible, foolish, fame-seeking celebrity. Based on this movie’s research, you begin to agree. Halfway between New Guinea and California, the radio transmitter goes dead, cutting off all signals, and a dead battery in the U.S. Navy signal transmitter makes it impossible for her to receive any incoming instructions. It was the last anyone heard of Amelia Earhart. They’ve been looking for her ever since.

Lots of facts, lots of calendar entries and a collage of information from aeronautical files provides the necessary tools for a documentary, but not enough heart-pounding adrenaline for a tragic historical film biography. There is so little warmth in the character of Amelia that I’m not sure I like her very much. I liked the movie a great deal more, in spite of its shortcomings, but the most amazing thing about it is Hilary Swank. With short russet hair, a nose covered with freckles and a total abstention from makeup, she looks exactly like the subject. Then, miraculously, when you see actual newsreel footage of Amelia Earhart, she looks so astoundingly like Hilary Swank you’ll think you’re seeing double.

  Amelia Has Me Flying High!