Program Notes: Amelia (2009)

“No borders, just horizons,” enthuses aviator Amelia Earhart in Amelia.

After all, who wants a safe life of stifling blandness?

And yet this film, coming 72 years after Earhart vanished, plays it awfully safe.

Under Mira Nair’s direction, Amelia is respectable and respectful, with a solid performance from two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank.

It’s also a bit bland.

Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan’s screenplay employs as a framing device Amelia (Swank) and navigator Fred Noonan’s (Christopher Eccleston) ill-fated 1937 attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The story unfolds in flashbacks as Amelia flies over deserts, seas, and mountains.

Film Screening:
Amelia (2009)
Monday, July 22 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

Her childhood in Atchison, Kansas, is dispensed with in about 20 seconds; then we see the adult Amelia slowly working her way into the flying business and the consciousness of the American public.

The basic big events of her life are here, like the solo flight across the Atlantic that made her the first person to duplicate Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 feat.

She marries book publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), who manages her career so effectively (some would say exploitatively) that by the time of her disappearance she is doing ads for cigarettes (though she doesn’t smoke) and has her own fashion and luggage lines.

Daring for the times, the couple enjoy what today might be called an “open” relationship... they messed around with other people.

Amelia has an affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), an aviation bigwig in Roosevelt’s administration (he was the father of future writer Gore Vidal), but eventually returns to her husband.

Through it all she tirelessly promotes the role of women in aviation and, indirectly, notions of female independence and achievement. In an era when girls didn’t have all that many role models, Earhart enjoyed the sort of devotion today reserved for teen pop stars.

But the big questions that dog the legend are glossed over here. The film doesn’t address allegations that the boyish Earhart was a lesbian (or bisexual); the closest it comes is her offhand comment about a woman’s nice legs and an assertion to Putnam that she’s not the marrying kind.

And it doesn’t even mention the many rumors about Earhart’s fate: Did she crash on a Japanese-controlled island? Did she die in one of their prisons?

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As far as the film is concerned, the crew of a Coast Guard ship lost radio contact with the pilot in the middle of the Pacific ... and that’s that.

And in a way, it’s enough. These final scenes, based on actual radio transmissions, provide drama and a depth of emotion elsewhere missing.

With her horsey mouth and boyish ‘do, Swank perfectly captures Earhart’s physical side, though her speaking voice has less of Kansas than Katharine Hepburn. You get a sense of the woman’s determination and bravery and her willingness to pull rank when the men around her are feeling churlish. But it’s not what you’d call a knockout performance.

Amelia is always competent, but it rarely soars.

Other films in the series “Up, Up, and Away!”

July 24 is Amelia Earhart Day, honoring the woman aviator who set records in the 1930s and disappeared attempting an around-the-globe flight. In honor of that famous native of Atchison, Kansas, the Library is offering a film series about other real-life aviators.

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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