What do Americans know today about Amelia Earhart? My guess is that, if she’s remembered at all, it’s as a pioneering aviator in the late ’20s and ’30s who disappeared in the Pacific Ocean in 1937 while trying to fly around the world.
Mira Nair’s Amelia, starring two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank in the title role, is an attempt to make sure that Earhart will be remembered, particularly by young women. “Amelia blazed this trail for women to follow their dreams and make no apology for it,” says Swank in one of the short documentaries included on the Amelia DVD.
Nair’s biopic dutifully traces Earhart’s development from a Midwestern tomboy who fell in love with flying to one of the most famous women in America. The film depicts Earhart’s discovery by publisher George P. Putnam (Richard Gere), who selected her to be a passenger and log keeper accompanying a male pilot and mechanic in a trans-Atlantic flight in 1928. This enabled her to become the first woman to fly across the ocean, one year after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight.
Putnam was himself a pioneer of a different sort — in the realm of public relations — and he made Earhart famous, dubbing her “Lady Lindy” after Charles Lindbergh. He published her book about the flight, devoted himself to helping her finance future aeronautic exploits (in part by developing an Amelia Earhart line of luggage and clothing), and fell in love with her.
Amelia reveals its subject to be an early feminist. She wore slacks (like her contemporary, Katharine Hepburn) when few women of her stature did so in public, sponsored the first air race for women and continually encouraged girls and women to become aviators. She remained determined to pilot her own planes in pursuit of new records and accomplishments.
Earhart also resisted the constraints of marriage. “I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly,” she writes in her prenuptial note to Putnam, her husband-to-be.
As Nair explains in the DVD’s Making ‘Amelia’” documentary, “We’ve tried to be as authentic as possible in pretty much every dimension of her private life and her professional life.” This includes Earhart’s affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), an aviation instructor at West Point, an aeronautic entrepreneur (he developed the first shuttles to fly from Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.) and the father of writer Gore Vidal.
While the India-born, Harvard-educated Mira Nair might not seem like the most obvious director to take on the story of this American icon, a closer look at Nair’s work shows why she might have been interested. The concerns of women and their struggle for progress and equality is a theme that appears throughout Nair’s work, including her wonderful early films set in India (Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding), her evocative explorations of the Indian Diaspora to America (Mississippi Masala, The Namesake) and her ventures into historical and contemporary drama (Vanity Fair, Hysterical Blindness).
In Earhart, Nair has a subject who epitomizes female independence and fearlessness. Swank is well-cast in the role, as she captures the Midwestern cadences in Earhart’s voice, her honesty and her determination.
Yet Amelia never manages to get beyond the simple idea that Earhart flew as part of her life’s search for freedom and independence. Too often Nair tells Earhart’s story in a rote, predictable manner.
Earhart’s accomplishments in aviation — piloting her own plane across the Atlantic four years after her first flight, becoming the first pilot of either sex to fly solo cross the United States and to fly from Hawaii to California — blend together in a blur of great-looking shots from the air, tension inside the cockpit caused by fuel running low or navigational difficulties and lush musical sounds.
Even Earhart’s ill-fated attempt to fly around the globe, resulting in her plane’s disappearance in the Pacific Ocean, lacks sufficient dramatic tension. Shooting a pilot at work turns out to be just a bit more exciting than photographing a journalist writing a story — there are only so many shots of dial twisting and gazing below at the ground and sea that a viewer can take.
Another problem with Amelia is that it appears to have been chopped up in the editing room. Several key scenes, included on the DVD as deleted scenes, were cut from the final film. Scenes of Earhart’s early career as a social worker at a racially integrated settlement house in Boston were taken out, as were virtually all of Virginia Madsen’s scenes as Putnam’s first wife. A scene in which Earhart endorses the Equal Rights Amendment would have deepened one’s understanding of Earhart’s feminism.
On the other hand, Nair dwells far longer than necessary on Earhart’s affair with Vidal, an affair whose motivation remains unclear. And it might have been intriguing had Nair looked into the relationship between Earhart and the even more famous male pilot Charles Lindbergh. He’s referred to, once, by Putnam, as a “pompous bore”, but the contrast between Lindbergh, who gained notoriety in the ’30s and early ’40s for his pro-Nazi sympathies, and the feminist and Roosevelt-supporting Earhart was striking.
The DVD includes some vintage Movietone News footage of the real Earhart. For a lot more newsreel footage, plus interviews with relatives, friends and historians, check out Amelia Earhart: Queen of the Air, a TV documentary that aired on the Biography Channel (A&E Home Entertainment).
Unfortunately for those who treasure the life and significance of Amelia Earhart, Nair’s Amelia was a flop at the box office. Yet the importance of what Amelia represents has not been lost. As McGregor put it in the DVD documentary The Power of Amelia Earhart: “My daughters are living lives of freedom and equality because of women like Amelia Earhart. It’s important that we don’t forget about people like (her).”