With all the hype surrounding the new movie “Amelia,” I was prepared to encounter another aviation biopic that slaughtered the main character and violated the Laws of Physics when it came to aviation and what airplanes can actually do in the air.
I am pleased to say that the Laws of Physics remained intact, but I am not sure about the character of Earhart.
Award-winning actress Hilary Swank is cast in the title role. Although there is no law that says the movie star has to look like the character she plays, Swank carries it off, right down to the mannerisms. I was a little disturbed that the gap in her front teeth tended to change between the first few scenes, then disappeared altogether.
Swank plays opposite Richard Gere who is cast as George Putnam, her publicist and later husband.
Adding to the mix is Ewan McGregor as Gene Vidal, who is portrayed as a colleague and love interest. Love interest? Excuse me? Earhart was an extremely private person, and judging from what I have read in biographies of her, not known for her romantic passion. She accepted Putnam’s marriage proposal in a note, after all. I wondered if the relationship with Vidal was a Hollywood concoction added to bring conflict to the movie to sell it to the aviation-challenged. The love triangle is a classic, albeit tired, plot device.
Director Mira Nair had the unenviable task of trying to take a larger-than-life person like Amelia Earhart and putting her life into perspective on film.
Earhart was a trailblazer, doing things that only men did at the time, ranging from wearing trousers to very public events like flying across the country.
Earhart was also instrumental in starting the aviation program at Purdue University and the Ninety-nines. These things are touched on briefly in the movie. I watched the movie with a pack of other Ninety-nines. One commented that it was too bad the origin of the name (there were 99 woman who held pilot’s licenses and responded to a query about the formation of the organization) was not mentioned.
Earhart’s background was touched on in a cursory fashion. Many people think of her only as a pilot, not knowing that she was enrolled at Columbia University in the pre-med program prior to becoming a pilot. She also was a nurse during World War I. Yet these accomplishments get only a one-line mention in the movie, which fixates on her last flight in 1937. Through a series of flashbacks, the viewer sees what events and accomplishments led to the epic and tragic flight.
Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared July 2, 1937. Since then, there has been lots of speculation about Earhart’s lack of experience and piloting skill — which was touched on briefly in the movie — and allegations that she did not listen to Noonan during the epic flight. Watching the scene aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, where the crewmen struggle in vain to reach the hapless fliers, will have you feeling their pain. Christopher Eccleston, as Fred Noonan, gives a particularly poignant performance in this scene.
Earhart’s disappearance is still a great mystery. Over the decades there have been several expeditions to the Pacific in the vicinity of where she allegedly crashed, as well as more fanciful suggestions as to their fate, such as capture and execution by the Japanese during World War II or abduction by extraterrestrials.
The movie does not offer suggestions as to what happened. Rather it fades to black and lets viewers form their own conclusions. If you are looking for a movie that provides a definitive answer as to where she is, forget it.
On a more positive note, Swank revealed that she had taken flying lessons to prepare for the role. She had logged about 20 hours when the movie’s insurance carrier demanded she stop. I read the same thing about Leonardo DiCaprio when he played Howard Hughes in “The Aviator.” I don’t know if these assertions are accurate or simply said to make the movie more palatable to the aviation crowd. Given the amount of Hollywood types who are pilots (such as Harrison Ford) I’d like to think that they did get some stick time.
The technical aspects of the movie are pretty good by Hollywood standards. The scene of the Vega icing up over the ocean will have you on the edge of your seat.
But there are a few things that puzzled me. In a scene where the Electra’s landing gear collapses during takeoff, Earhart/Swank laments she should have used more rudder. The tailwheel was already up when it happened and the gear didn’t appear to be side-loaded. Earhart/Swank appears to be yanking on the control wheel during the takeoff attempt. My inner-instructor thought, “No, you should have stayed in ground effect until you reached sufficient airspeed, THEN added back pressure,” and then I found myself wondering what the point of no return was for takeoff because that is not mentioned at all. There also wasn’t a pre-take off briefing between her and Noonan — at least not that we saw.
Even if the story line is not to your taste, if you like vintage aviation you’ll love seeing all those fantastic airplanes in the air. For me it was particularly special because over the last two years I encountered several people who own airplanes that are the same model that Earhart flew, and they were happy to tell me that they had been contacted by the producers who wanted to use their airplanes in the film.
For the most part the movie has had bad reviews. I am not sure what the movie-going audience was looking for. For me, you put airplanes, one of my childhood heroes and a couple of foxes like Gere and McGregor in a movie, and I’m there.
Overall, I found “Amelia” a fun movie to watch.
Meg Godlewski is GAN’s Staff Reporter and a Master CFI.