Amelia vs. The Spirit: No Contest

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When I was crawling around Joe Shepherd's nicely restored Electra at AOPA Summit last week, it occurred to me that the new film Amelia would be worth a look. We saw it Saturday night in a near empty theater here in Florida. (I don't take that as disinterest in aviation so much as the topic of Earhart itself, which is a steady staple on The History Channel. Viewers may be bored by it.)

Overall impression? I'd give it an eight on a scale of 10. I'd give Hilary Swank a 10 for nailing Earhart's accent and mannerisms, something that taxes the actor's skill to the limit because it's so easy to see through it when it's wrong. The flying scenes were terrific and lavishly shot in South Africa. Hundred million dollar budgets yield that. Reviews I've read flag the film as having a weak script, and I agree. It dragged at points and some of the dialog was a little silly. There are rushed scenes, such as the air race segment and the forced Gene Vidal detours that spread the story too wide at the expense of depth.

Halfway through the picture, I found myself comparing Amelia to Billy Wilder's Spirit of St. Louis, which, 50 years ago, used the same flashback device to move the story along. That film had Jimmy Stewart in the lead. The studio didn't want to cast Stewart because when the film was shot in 1957, Stewart was 49 and, so the story goes, too old to play the 25-year-old Lindbergh. But Stewart prevailed and carried the role brilliantly.

One reason for that is that he was a pilot. He was just over a decade from having flown 25 combat missions in Europe and he remained in the active Air Force reserves until 1968, retiring at flag rank. Wilder shrewdly constructed shots that showed Stewart's feel for airplanes. Remember the scene where he was running up the engine wondering about moisture in the mags? Compare that to Swank's performance in the Hawaii crash segment in Amelia.

And in Spirit's famous mirror scene—shot sparely and played quietly—we got a glimpse inside airplane that both moved the narrative forward and gave us a tantalizing glimpse into the Ryan's technical innards. That scene alone is among the masterpieces of modern film craftsmanship.

Directors don't do that much anymore, if at all. They assume—perhaps rightly—that the audience is too shallow and distracted to want to think about how the laws of physics and aerodynamics work, how machines fit into that and how people operate them. Thus, in Amelia, we don't get to see what the panel looked like, nor we do learn that she had a hand in her demise because of poor planning and execution. Compared to The Spirit of St. Louis, Amelia is pretty, but shallow.

Another metaphor for modern life.

Comments (23)

I saw the film last night. I agree that pretty but shallow is the appropriate characterization.

A number of instances occurred that were simply impossible. A partial list:

1. Shooting a sextant for navigation under an overcast sky in the final flight segment.

2. Either pilot looking away from the panel for significant periods of time either to look at the passenger or to watch the flight of a scarf thrown out of the pilot's window without loss of control of the aircraft.

3. Reckless disregard of weather or intoxicated crew member without any discussion of delay in departure for these reasons.

4. Repeated use of unconvincing attempts at takeoff overweight.

5. Unconvincing drop from cruise altitude for no apparent reason.

6. Miraculous repair of severely damaged aircraft that was supposedly saved from more severe engine damage by shutting off the fuel even though both engines apparently suffered prop strikes.

7. What's about the "more rudder, less throttle" on take off in a twin engine plane?

8. Where is the continuity for the repaired Electra being in Hawaii and then taking off from Florida?

9. Why can't we see the panel or any convincing shot of actually controlling the plane?

Posted by: STEPHEN SHIRLEY | November 11, 2009 4:07 PM    Report this comment

If I may add to Stephen's list:

10. Flying at 3000 ft with a thunderstorm below?

Posted by: Joel Cutler | November 12, 2009 7:37 AM    Report this comment

The first commenter has a long list of nit-picks, but I will respond to #1: "Shooting a sextant for navigation under an overcast sky in the final flight segment".

As long as the position of the sun (no matter how pale) can be detected, a sextant can be used to shoot a sun line of position, with the result of knowing that the observer is somewhere on that specific line on the chart. In fact, this is what many historians have assumed Amelia and her navigator would have been doing so that they could search the appropriate line of longitude for Howland Island, and not overfly it east bound.
If it happens to be LAN (local apparent noon) at the time of such a sun shot, then an actual position can be determined.

Posted by: Kim Welch | November 12, 2009 7:42 AM    Report this comment

Re: "If it happens to be LAN (local apparent noon) at the time of a sun shot, then an actual position can be determined."

I am not too familiar with bubble sextants, but I can tell you for certain, that a marine sextant will give you the latitude when you shoot the sun at local noon (known as Meridian Passage) - not an actual fix. Like any other shot of a single celestial object, the sun at MerPas only provides a single line of position. It just happens to be aligned perfectly east/west which, by definition, is a latitude. You can then use the Line of Position from an earlier sighting to make a running fix but that can be done with any sighting.

Posted by: Fred Simpsn | November 12, 2009 8:14 AM    Report this comment

I agree wholheartedly with the comments above. I had high hopes of "Amelia" inspiring a new generation -- including young girls -- to explore flight. What we got was a movie-of-the-week script packaged in $10 million of air-to-air footage that cost $100 million. Unfortunately, little of that budget was spent on the in-plane footage, which looked barely more realistic as Jack Webb piloting a Dodge in Dragnet. The extremely talented Swank gets credit for diving into the character, but unfortunately we see demonstrated again that good writing is good moviemaking - the hard way.

It's hard to imagine that anyone involved in the decisionmaking had any experience with aircraft other than riding in the back of 737s. Even Swank, who to her credit attempted to learn to fly in a Cirrus for the role, was prevented even from soloing by the studio. Through no fault of her own, a 20-hour student does not a Jimmy Stewart make.

Posted by: David Thompson | November 12, 2009 8:28 AM    Report this comment

"Spirit of St. Louis" was a much more compelling movie in my opinion; I still like to watch it today as you really get inside Lindbergh's (Stewart's) head. Hillary Swank did a fantastic job portraying Amelia Earhart; she is exactly what I've always imagnined the real Amelia to be like. But the shallowness of the movie leaves a lot to be desired. They would have done better to go a little more technical, I don't think they would risk much doing that.
Here's a couple of things only a pilot would probably notice, see if you agree:

1. At the 1928 airshow, a beautiful red Staggerwing Beech is in the background; funny that Walter Beech didn't build any until 1932. (OK, Stearmans get a pass as they are the staple biplane in any movie).

2. The VHF nav/comm, GPS, and ELT antennas mounted on the Lockheed 12 should have helped them find Howland Island (or be found later). But at least they did put a fake DF loop over the cockpit even though Hillary never even tried to use it when the Itasca was calling.

3. Holding an intimate personal conversation over HF radio with no static, tones, or stray morse is a bit unrealistic!

4. The opening scene shows a parasol monoplane flying over Kansas; it looks way too much like a model, especially with the unnaturally short wingspan that would lead to a horrifically high wing loading for that type of construction. They missed a great opportunity to show a real early bird in flight.

Posted by: A Richie | November 12, 2009 8:50 AM    Report this comment

One more thing:
Did you notice the longitudinal stability (or lack thereof) when they raise the gear on the Lockheed 12?
Watch the takeoff scenes as the gear comes up; you see the pitch angle oscillate as the gear rises. Or maybe the pilot was scheduling his next flight on his laptop :-) Interesting....

Posted by: A Richie | November 12, 2009 8:59 AM    Report this comment

even when flying the great ocean, there is no excuse for not having a good scan; like a bus driver she seemed mesmerized with the airspace directly in front of the nose.

Posted by: A Richie | November 12, 2009 9:04 AM    Report this comment

I also noticed the unrealistically clear HF radio conversation near the end of the movie. But the laugh-out-loud moment for me came when not one but TWO characters nearly fell out of the plane during the first cross-Atlantic flight. Seriously, is that what they had to resort to in order to add dramatic tension?

I think this review is right on. Well acted and pretty, but shallow.

Posted by: Christine Pulliam | November 12, 2009 9:07 AM    Report this comment

I have to agree with most everthing above. I remember day dreaming in school, looking out the window and thinking about Jimmy's movie.... I don't know if this pretty movie will do the same thing for youngsters today.
The drop from altitude was obviously from ice, but I was surprised because nothing was said. My wife had no clue.
The Hawaii accident was a total mess. A fast rolling takeoff with slow power application and not getting full power in until what must have been half way down the runway! Squeeking tires? No mention of the takeoff weight!
What about the decision process to leave the trailing wire readio behind?
I hadn't given it all that much thought, seems this was actually pretty intertaining compared to what we have been getting from Hollywierd.

Posted by: bruce hinds | November 12, 2009 10:41 AM    Report this comment

I saw the movie with 30 other people in the theatre. I would like to have seen the instrument panel and other details. I know airshows of that time didn't have our modern restorations, but what could the producer do otherwise without great cost unless he went to Rinebeck. The decision making process and fuel tank installation and all the technical stuff to outfit the plane would have interested a lot of non fliers. Aviatiors are such a small segment of the population, I guess I just accept whatever Hollywood comes up with as better than nothing.

Posted by: Woody Woodall | November 12, 2009 10:54 AM    Report this comment

I saw the film at a Premier in Montreal and while Swank was very good as Amelia the film was a little lame. I was glad however that they resisted the urge to overdramatize with the "Spying" stories.
As for anomolies I believe that one of the aircraft at the airshow was a Thruxton Jackaroo which as they were made from war surplus Tiger Moths was obviously an anachronism. The 70's VHF blade Ae in some shots was removed for others as was the ELT Ae. Also did anyone else see the "ELT LOCATED HERE" triangle by the door in Hawaii.

Posted by: Jon Williams | November 12, 2009 2:17 PM    Report this comment

I loved the red Lockheed Vega, man what a gorgeous plane. Was that for real or only a movie prop (no pun intended?)

Posted by: A Richie | November 12, 2009 3:40 PM    Report this comment

A pretty movie to look at; good acting (Including Gere), great period sets. However, did not work as a movie or as a flying movie; hallow and unfaithful to even a Hollywood version of what this epic age of aviation must have been like. A waste. Go see it if you want, but keep expectations low.

Posted by: Curt Brown | November 12, 2009 4:00 PM    Report this comment

A pretty movie to look at; good acting (Including Gere), great period sets. However, did not work as a movie or as a flying movie; hallow and unfaithful to even a Hollywood version of what this epic age of aviation must have been like. A waste. Go see it if you want, but keep expectations low.

Posted by: Curt Brown | November 12, 2009 4:00 PM    Report this comment

For the sake of completeness, the actual flying scenes of a Lockheed 12 filmed in South Africa involved another Lockheed 12 aircraft, owned by author/pilot Bernard Chabbert and currently based in Annemasse (France). The ferrying of the aircraft both ways from France to South Africa and back proved an adventure in itself, enough to justify a book on adventurous flying in Africa...I have not seen the film yet, but all involved should be commended for the acheivement.

Posted by: Bernard Chevassut | November 13, 2009 5:16 AM    Report this comment

Did you notice in the hotel, Richard Gere turns on a radio and sound instantly appears. Tube-type radios typically take 60-90 seconds to warm up before you start getting audio. Instant-on transistor radios like we have today didn't exist until the well after the transistor was invented in 1947.

Posted by: A Richie | November 13, 2009 4:03 PM    Report this comment

It's interesting to me that noted pilot Paul Mantz played a pivotal role in getting "Spirit of St. Louis" on the screen in 1956, and also played a pivotal role in the aviation career of Ameilia Earhart. Mantz was, frankly, the impetus for much of what Earhart did as a pilot. I haven't seen the Earhart movie; does he show up as a character at all?

Posted by: Scott Thompson | November 13, 2009 4:40 PM    Report this comment

Enjoyed seeing the movie. Amelia had a few historical flaws, but the public would not know the difference (for example, when she had her mishap in Hawaii they actually had a third person on board, a radio operator who was unable to fly when she got the plane repaired.) However, those who want to see the instrument panel would probably be annoyed when they saw it. When I saw the Ford Trimotor panel in DIndiana Jones and the Temple of oom I knew the period did not have a VOR receiver. The movie gave the essence of what Amelia Earhart and George Putnam were all about--publicity. They did not dwell to the point of annoyance on her quirks like the producers of the Howard Hughes mental breakdown epic of a few years ago. You got to enjoy cool planes and great flying! The public will not understand the movie or support it anymore than they did the Spirit of St. Louis movie with Jimmy Stewart. It has endured, but it was not a big box office success at the time it was released. Aviation movies are few and far between. Even with their flaws go watch them and hopefully Hollywood will make more.

Posted by: Norma Kraemer | November 16, 2009 10:10 AM    Report this comment

Haven't had a chance to see the movie yet. None the less, it should be noted that Ms. Earhart was less than "professionl" in her training and a lousy navigator. Even when using a real navigator, when tired, was prone to ignore and reverse his orders. This explains the weakening radio signals as she flew away from her destination.
Her story is one of ego, money, and PR. What it shows to me is, not unlike Ms. Palin, a cutie and testosterone will trump quality every time.

Posted by: Larry Fries | November 16, 2009 11:15 PM    Report this comment

They focused on the love story, not aviation. Turned Amelia into a "chick flick". Disappointing.

Posted by: Mike Shaw | November 17, 2009 6:48 AM    Report this comment

was there an aircraft damaged in the accident scene?

Posted by: Michael Schupp | November 17, 2009 5:41 PM    Report this comment

No aircraft was damaged during the accident scene. It's a combination, we were told, of CGI and real airplane parts. Joe Shepherd told us the production unit borrowed some damaged Electra parts he owns to set up those scenes.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 18, 2009 5:59 AM    Report this comment

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