It’s June 1937, moments before Amelia Earhart takes off to fly around the world. If she succeeds, she’ll be the first person—male or female—to circumnavigate by airplane our simultaneously tiny and gargantuan planet. A journalist asks if she’ll give up long-distance flying after this journey.
Earhart responds, "Not while there’s still life left in me. I fly for the fun of it."
Then, as the camera captures panoramic aerial views of African savannahs and Asian jungles, we get some small sense of just how much fun she must have had.
Based on the biographies The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell and East to the Dawn by Susan Butler, Amelia plays out as a series of flashbacks that explain how the noted aviatrix ("the most famous woman in America") arrived at her final flight.
We see, for example, her first meeting with publishing mogul George Putnam, their eventual marriage and his devoted financial and emotional support of her pursuits. We see her first flight across the Atlantic—as flight commander, but really just a passenger. And we appreciate her tireless efforts to fight gender barriers and encourage other female pilots.
Of a cherished childhood memory, Amelia says, "When I saw that little plane it lifted me above the Kansas prairie. I had to fly."
We watch her do just that.
Because Amelia was only a passenger during her first flight across the Atlantic, she feels like a fraud. So she sets out to right the wrong by proving to herself and the world that she can do it all by herself. In her thinking, failure is not an option, and she inspires the same determinedness in others.
She paves the way for other female flyers by pushing gender boundaries and encouraging others to do the same. Perhaps it was she who first broke through the so-called glass ceiling—by launching herself high into the sky. Her drive is shown to be, in part, why The Ninety-Nines, the first organization of female pilots, successfully endures today. Her courage, passion and perseverance proved to other women that they could follow their dreams, even if society told them they could not.
Amelia was also genuine. Though she hated the commercial endorsements Putnam set up in order to fund her flying, she did use the products she advertised or created, such as the line of clothing she is still famous for. And this reasonableness also saves her life, as well as her navigator’s, when both are in a plane crash. (She calmly cuts the engines, preventing an explosion.)
For his part, Putman loves his wife deeply and strives to strengthen her career—albeit at times with what could be interpreted as greed. He is a constant source of support, and that support ultimately persuades her to abandon a dalliance she shares with Gene Vidal (founder of TWA airlines). Amelia eventually seems to understand how special and exclusive marriage truly should be. And where she thought marriage came with a cage, her actions later show that she’s discovered it is in fact liberating and life-sustaining.
When a young boy is frightened by jungle-themed wallpaper while staying at Amelia’s house, Amelia, who says she is afraid of jungles herself, tells him to look his fear in the eye and overcome it, as she has learned to do.
Amelia asks Putnam to pray that one of her missions goes smoothly. When he says he’s "not much of a prayer man," she instructs him to tip his hat and cross his fingers instead.
As they’re running out of fuel during their final flight, navigator Fred Noonan appears to be praying.
Perhaps paralleling her pioneering leap into a male-dominated profession, Amelia’s personal life was also unconventional. When she and Putnam finally agree to marry—she’s resisted him for some time—she tells him she will not hold him to a "medieval code" of monogamy, and that she herself will not be faithful to him alone. This, of course, causes friction when Putnam becomes jealous of her relationship with Vidal.
Vidal and Earhart are seen kissing. History—and this movie—suggest that the two had an affair.
George and Amelia are seen embracing, caressing and lying in bed together, implying sex. Amelia is seen in a camisole and George is shirtless in at least one scene. He pulls up her skirt a bit as they kiss. And she wears only a towel at one point.
There are several mild incidents of innuendo intended to be humorous, and, knowing her negative attitudes toward monogamy, Noonan makes a veiled but highly inappropriate sexual advance toward her.
The possibility of death always niggles at the backs of pilots’ and their loved ones’ minds. Putnam reminds Amelia of the numerous other people who have died trying to complete the daring stunts she sets out to do. And the dangers certainly aren’t lost on her, as she hands over good-bye letters for her family before she attempts to cross the Atlantic.
During that flight, Earhart almost falls out of the plane when a door spontaneously opens at altitude. Several aircraft plummet suddenly, almost smashing into the ocean. We see black-and-white footage of a plane crashing into the ground. And Earhart’s around-the-world craft bucks and buckles when its wheels snap during a take-off attempt.
Crude or Profane Language
One or two uses each of "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n" and "a‑‑." Christ’s name is abused once. God’s is coupled with "d‑‑n" once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A cigarette brand wants Amelia to be its spokesperson, even though she doesn’t smoke. (George says he hid a pack of the smokes in her airplane just so she wouldn’t be lying when she tells the public that she travels with them.) Whatever cigarettes Amelia doesn’t use, however, other characters do. Several light up multiple times.
A couple of scenes occur in a bar. Champagne flows for celebrations. And men are seen partially or fully intoxicated. But the real story about alcohol here isn’t seen, it’s talked about. And it’s central to Earhart’s life. She refers to her father as a drunk, intimating that his habit has haunted her for years. Noonan is also an alcoholic, drinking even during the pit stops built into their final flight. We get the sense that Amelia is dreadfully worried that alcohol might harm her again. And (offscreen) many have speculated that it did indeed contribute to her tragic end.
Other Negative Elements
During their wedding ceremony, Earhart and Putnam ask the reverend to take the word "obey" out of their vows "before the bride runs off."
Putnam comes across as being very concerned about physical appearance, saying that attractive spokeswomen attract more attention—even if they’re not the most talented in their field. He’s driven, at least to some degree, by a thirst for fame. He goes so far as to threaten a younger female pilot and "fix" an aviation race so that Amelia has a better chance of winning.
In reality, Earhart wasn’t the best female pilot ever. But as Putnam suggests, she was the best representative of women in her burgeoning field. Her svelte form, charisma, fervor and down-to-earth Kansas personality appealed to millions then and still appeals to millions today.
Amelia, though, ultimately fails to truly capture Earhart’s passion and epic life. Maybe it doesn’t boast enough tension. Maybe it doesn’t delve deep enough into its characters’ motivations. At times I felt as if I was watching disjointed encyclopedia entries calmly reenacted for a History Channel special.
It has its moments. When Amelia is candid about her dreams and longing to fulfill them, Amelia becomes more meaningful. When she talks of a globe her father gave her, and how as a child she spent hours studying it, imagining going to the places she now visits. And when she says, reflecting on her amazing life, "I think of all the hands I’ve held, the places I’ve seen, the vast lands whose dirt is caked on the bottoms of my shoes. The world has changed me."
Those moments are too far apart for high drama, for profound feelings of emotional identification. But they aren’t so scattered as to cause the whole project to crash and burn. Amelia may contain just enough fuel to inspire viewers to learn more about the real and much more vivid woman who has inspired countless people to learn how to fly, both literally and figuratively.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart, Richard Gere as George Putnam, Ewan McGregor as Gene Vidal, Christopher Eccleston as Fred Noonan, Cherry Jones as Eleanor Roosevelt
October 23, 2009
February 2, 2010