After having seen the trailer, I am hoping that Mira Nair’s new movie about Mrs. Amelia Earhart Putnam doesn’t suck. Not having seen Ms. Swank in any film other than 1992’s Buffy the Vampie Slayer, it is a bit of a surprise to note how easily she goes from hot to fugly. Her affected accent is a little too Katharine Hepburn/New England instead of Earhart’s Kansas drawl, but that’s a minor quibble. Because Nair is the director it’s a safe bet the film will be visually sumptuous; although something about the trailer leaves me with the nagging feeling that she was casting about for high-drama Oscar moments rather than trying to deliver a truthful portrait of Earhart’s complex life.
One interesting thing I learned at the air show on Saturday was that Earhart first felt the stirrings of a desire to fly right here in Toronto! The young Ms. Earhart had visited her sister in this city for the Christmas of 1917, and having seen the returning wounded, was moved to assist them. She quit school and became a nurse’s aide at the Spadina Military Hospital (now home to the fine arts department of UofT’s Faculty of Arts and Science). In her free time Amelia went horseback riding with her sister Muriel, and sometimes a British Royal Flying Corps officer would join them. He invited them to the airfield but could not offer them a flight, owing to regulations of the time. In her diary, Earhart recalls spending much spare time at the aerodrome and absorbing as much information as she could. She and her sister also observed a Great War ace perform a flying demonstration at the 1918 Canadian National Exhibition:
He was bored. He had looped and rolled and spun and finished his little bag of tricks, and there was nothing left to do but watch the people on the ground running as he swooped close to them.
…I remember the mingled fear and pleasure which surged over me as I watched that small plane at the top of its earthward swoop. …I did not understand it at the time but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.
— Haugen, Brenda. Amelia Earhart: Legendary Aviator. Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2007.
Amelia’s story ought to be one of the great epics of aviation, but my inner skeptic knows how easily Hollywood can take a good story, and by judicious tweaking and re-writing, turn it into an enormous fly-ridden pile of crap.
The odds aren’t helped by the fact that Earhart’s fate has remained something of a mystery since her 1937 disappearance with copilot and navigator Fred Noonan. Aside from the obvious and least conspiracy-ridden “ditched at sea” theory, there are plenty of others—that she and Noonan were able to crash-land on Nikumaroro/Gardner Island; that they crash-landed on Saipan and were executed by the occupying Japanese; that they survived the world flight and assumed new identities. That otherwise respectable decorated war heroes (Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, for example) believed some of the more outlandish and improbable claims lends these tall tales a credence they do not deserve.
But my purpose here is not to rehash the variables of a 72-year-old mystery. I really do hope this film is worthwhile; not merely because the aviatrix is a certified aviation icon, but because it might conceivably spur others to themselves take to the skies. Hollywood’s typical treatment of aircraft and aviation is to ignore basic procedures and equipment, because their proper operation would short-circuit a lame “protagonists in jeopardy” moment upon which a critical plot point revolves. They depend on viewers’ ignorance to slip by howlers that, to pilots, appear as ridiculous a conceit as the boogeyman leaping out of one’s closet. Thus any time the media machine breaks from these tedious habits, it ought to be encouraged.
So with that in mind, and notwithstanding the presence of Richard Gere, I am hoping against hope that this one turns out all right.