Saturday, November 21, 2009

Amelia

It’s easy to forget that less than 100 years ago no one had ever flown across the Atlantic ocean.  We take it for granted today that we can jump on a plane in the evening and be in Paris in the morning.  But until Lindbergh did it, no one had.   And even after Lindbergh did it, not many other people flew across the Atlantic. It was dangerous.   People died trying.  In fact, the first person to do it after Lindbergh was a woman, Amelia Earhart.   And she ended up in Ireland, not Paris.

I was reminded of this while watching the film Amelia, starring Hillary Swank and Richard Gere.  We went to see Amelia because there was nothing else playing that we wanted to see that we hadn’t already seen.  I can’t say it was the best film I’ve ever seen.   I realized halfway through the film that it is probably hard to write an exciting screenplay when your real-life  heroine spent the most exciting parts of her life sitting by herself (or with one or two other people) in an airplane looking out a window. 

But I’m not sorry I went to see it because I really didn’t know much about Amelia Earhart and now I want to know more.  

As with most biopics, I’m not sure what part of the film is fact and what part is embellished or just plain fiction.  But the one thing that I did check was the list of Amelia Earhart’s accomplishments:

Records and achievements
  • Amelia Earhart received the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French Government in June 1932
  • Woman's world altitude record: 14,000 ft (1922)
  • First woman to fly the Atlantic (1928)
  • Speed records for 100 km (and with 500 lb (230 kg) cargo) (1931)
  • First woman to fly an autogyro (1931)
  • Altitude record for autogyros: 15,000 ft (1931)
  • First person to cross the U.S. in an autogyro (1932)
  • First woman to fly the Atlantic solo (1932)
  • First person to fly the Atlantic twice (1932)
  • First woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross (1932)
  • First woman to fly non-stop, coast-to-coast across the U.S. (1933)
  • Woman's speed transcontinental record (1933)
  • First person to fly solo between Honolulu, Hawaii and Oakland, California (1935)
  • First person to fly solo from Los Angeles, California to Mexico City, Mexico (1935)
  • First person to fly solo nonstop from Mexico City, Mexico to Newark, New Jersey (1935)
  • Speed record for east-to-west flight from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii (1937)

That’s quite a list. 

Hillary Swank plays Amelia Earhart.  And she really looks  like her.  At least she looks like the old newsreel versions of Amelia that I remember seeing in the past and that are shown at the end of this film.  Swank can carry off the men’s clothes and the chopped haircut that gave Amelia her slightly mannish look.  But at the same time she plays her very lightly, almost against type.  There is nothing brusk about Swank’s Amelia and yet at the same time she plays her as a very direct woman who goes after what she wants.

The biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t really explain Amelia Earhart.  It doesn’t really explain how she started flying – it couldn’t have been easy as a woman to get access to a plane.  Although it shows her meeting with GP Putnam in which he proposes she fly across the Atlantic with two men, it doesn’t explain how he knew about her or how she got from the fields of Kansas to New York City.  And although there is a lot of footage of her flying planes, it really doesn’t show any of the technical details of flying that she would have to have mastered. 

Richard Gere plays George (GP) Putnam, the publisher, who marries a reluctant Amelia.   Ewan MacGregor plays Gore Vidal’s father, Gene Vidal, with whom Earhart has an affair.   An affair that, in the movie, is strangely boring.   The film has a slightly 1940’s feel to it and sex is alluded  to  but not really shown.   Which is fine, but the alluded to sex with GP seemed much better than the alluded to sex with Vidal.  And it isn’t because one actor is sexier than the other – you can’t fault Ewan MacGregor in the sexy category.   

The film shows the commercialization of Amelia’s accomplishments as GP has her promote her own brand of luggage and other products.  When he gets a sponsorship from Lucky Strike cigarettes she asks what she is supposed to say:  “I don’t smoke them but you should?”   But her qualms are few because the cash from the advertising finances her flying.    That seems very modern.

The one thing the film did well was show what a modern woman Amelia was.  From her unconventional marriage to GP to her sponsorship of a group of women flyers to her conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt, she was a woman at the forefront of her times demanding her place in a man’s world.  She seemed like a woman I would have wanted to meet. 

The film also did a fairly decent job showing the quickly changing viewpoint on mass aviation – Amelia was instrumental in convincing people that flying to your destination was as safe as driving a car.   And as people began to fly along the eastern seaboard they began to take her exploits more for granted.  In fact, when her first attempt to fly across the Atlantic was aborted due to a blown tire that damaged her aircraft she remarks that perhaps the crash will be good.  People were starting to take it for granted that she would succeed at whatever she tried.  They were forgetting how dangerous it was.

My recommendation on this film is guarded.  If you are looking for an exciting film, this isn’t for you.  Even her last, doomed flight across the Pacific isn’t as riveting as it might have been.  But if you are just looking for an introduction to Amelia Earhart the woman – this is a good place to start.

Here’s a Smithsonian Institution video about Amelia and the Lockheed Vega that she flew across the Atlantic: