Flying with ‘Amelia’

November 13, 2009

The critics haven’t given the 2009 biopic Amelia many rave reviews. As for me, I should admit up front that I have a couple of biases: I am not only a lifetime admirer of Amelia Earhart—a genuine American heroine—but I am also a fan of the actress who becomes her in this overdue big-screen docudrama. (I spent a bit of quality time with the engaging Hilary Swank on the set of The Reaping , a failed movie loosely based on my work as a miracle investigator.)

Amelia is a movie critical thinkers can appreciate. Whereas some reviewers seem primarily interested in entertainment value (regarding “tedium” as something of a personal affront), it is refreshing to see a movie that avoids wild flights of fancy.

I am referring to proliferating “theories” about Earhart’s disappearance in the Pacific, July 2, 1937. One claim was that her attempted around-the-world flight was actually cover for a spying mission on Japanese-occupied islands. Over the years, alleged eyewitnesses claimed to have been present at her imprisonment or execution, either in the islands or Japan; her grave and that of investigator Fred Noonan were rumored at a site on Tinian; and Amelia’s briefcase was supposedly found in a safe on Saipan. Alas, the evidence has ranged from the unconfirmed to the bogus, including fake photos of Earhart in captivity.

Another outlandish claim held that Earhart survived the adventure and moved to New Jersey where she changed her name and remarried, becoming Irene Craigmile Bolam. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bolam could prove she was not the famously missing pilot, and she received an out-of-court settlement, as McGraw-Hill withdrew its 1970 book by Joe Klaas, Amelia Earhart Lives . (For more on such claims, see my Unsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the Past , 2005, pp. 19–20. See also Jay Robert Nash, Among the Missing , 1978, pp. 210–227; Fred Goerner, The Search for Amelia Earhart , 1966; and Wikipedia , s.v. “Amelia Earhart.)

Commendably, Amelia attempts to portray the real life of the genuine trailblazing aviatrix, who set a woman’s world altitude record in 1922 and went on to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (as a passenger, 1928), pilot an autogyro (1931), cross the United States in an autogyro (1932), both fly the Atlantic solo and fly the Atlantic twice (i.e., making a round-trip flight, 1932), fly coast-to-coast non-stop across the United States (1933), and set many other altitude, speed, and solo records. She received (as the first woman) the Distinguished Flying Cross (from the U.S. Congress), the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society (presented by President Hoover), and the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor (from France). She was an important promoter of aviation, competitive flying, and women’s rights, being indeed an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Hilary Swank has done Amelia justice, playing her as the free spirit she was—from her early flights, to her open marriage to publisher George Putnam (played by Richard Gere), including a supposed affair with Gene Vidal (an aviation proponent and father of author Gore Vidal), her endless Putnam-promoted product endorsements and public appearances, and her final, ill-fated sojourn into mystery and legend.

Here, no fantasies or conspiracy theories are needed. The still boyish, thirty-nine-year-old Amelia is at the controls of her Electra, which is stripped of passenger seats and fitted with larger gas tanks. She and Noonan have hopscotched—first from Oakland to Miami, and on to Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dutch Guyana, and Brazil, then across the Atlantic to Senegal, traversing Africa to Karachi, India, and thence—via Burma, the Dutch East Indies, the island of Timor, and Australia’s Port Darwin—to Lae, New Guinea. Next was the most difficult leg, over 2,500 miles nonstop across open water to a tiny speck known as Howland Island, where a U.S. Coast Guard cutter waited to communicate with Earhart and guide her to land.

But everything went wrong. Due to a still-controversial series of errors and/or misunderstandings, the plane and the cutter could not effectively communicate, and the Electra was running out of gas. Watching, you know what’s going to happen: You can see it on Amelia’s face.