Friday, October 23, 2009

A Mystery That Remains Unsolved

I had high hopes for the movie "Amelia" that opens today in theaters across the country.

I've always enjoyed a good "biopic," as such films are called — as long as they have something meaningful to say or to contribute to discussions about their subjects. And Amelia Earhart was probably one of the first historical figures I heard anything about. But I never learned as much about her as I would have liked.

I have a vague memory from my childhood of luggage that belonged to my grandmother that bore Earhart's name. In hindsight, I suppose the luggage was some sort of line that was marketed for women. In my grandparents' day, that may have been what luggage makers did — perhaps there were other luggage lines that were named after pioneering pilots.

For all I know, Granddaddy may have had luggage that was named for Charles Lindbergh. Or the Wright Brothers. I don't know. I don't recall looking at his luggage. I might have more of a memory of that if he hadn't died when I was in first grade.

But my vague memory includes a brief conversation I had with my grandmother. I was about 8 or 9, I guess, and she had come to visit us. I remember looking at the label on her suitcase, and I asked her who Amelia Earhart was. I probably thought it was the name of the person who designed the luggage.

Grandmother simply replied, "She was a pilot." Nothing else was said because, at about that moment, my mother appeared in the doorway to tell us that dinner was ready. And I don't recall ever discussing it with her again.

When I got older, the name came up in history class but only briefly. And I was never able to get any of my teachers — whether in high school or college — to say much more than Earhart disappeared while flying around the world. It's been 72 years now, and Earhart's disappearance is still a mystery.

Anyway, when I heard that a film about Earhart was going to be released this fall, my curiosity was aroused again. But I realized that anything that the movie had to say would be speculative in nature. I'm certain that, if the filmmaker had uncovered some information that could answer the enduring question of what happened, it would have been the subject of numerous articles and documentaries. But nothing like that has happened.

Speculation is OK with me, though. If it makes people think about what may have happened and they start asking questions, that's fine. "JFK," after all, didn't definitively answer the questions that have swirled around the Kennedy assassination for decades, but it prompted people to ask them.

Unfortunately, from what I've been reading, "Amelia" doesn't seem to contribute anything to the discussion of what happened when she disappeared in July 1937.

Earhart's destination on July 2, 1937, was a sliver of an island in the Pacific Ocean called Howland Island. There are plenty of theories about what happened:
  • One theory, which has been popular with quite a few researchers, is that Earhart's plane ran out of fuel and was ditched at sea. The "crash and sink" theory certainly would explain why no wreckage has ever been found, although many deep sea expeditions have tried to locate the plane.

  • Another theory holds that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, landed on another island and eventually died. Searchers on the island never found any plane wreckage, but they did discover some items, like improvised tools, an aluminum panel and a piece of plexiglas, that encouraged none other than Earhart's stepson to believe the mystery of her disappearance had been solved.

  • Other theories, which have been mentioned in documentaries, have suggested that Earhart was a spy who was captured by the Japanese and either executed or forced to make propaganda broadcasts as "Tokyo Rose." It has even been suggested that Earhart survived, returned to the United States and assumed a new identity, but that claim, which originated in a book titled "Amelia Earhart Lives," was refuted.
An exploration of an existing theory — or, perhaps, the presentation of a new theory supported by new technology — would have been an acceptable reason for a film about Earhart.

Lisa Schwarzbaum of writes that "Amelia" is a "frustratingly old–school, Hollywood–style, inspirational biopic."

"The mystery we ought to be paying attention to is: What really happened on the legendary American aviator's final, fatal flight in 1937?" Schwarzbaum writes. "But the question audiences are left with is this: How could so tradition–busting a role model have resulted in so square, stiff, and earthbound a movie? Why present such a modern woman in such a fusty format?"

Similarly, Manohla Dargis writes, in the New York Times, that the movie is an "exasperatingly dull production."

And Claudia Puig writes, in USA Today, that "it's too bad that a film about a daring and audacious woman taking on staggering challenges plays it so safe."

Of course, those are critics' opinions. And I'm usually the first to say that people should form their own opinions and not take a critic's word for it.

It may well be an entertaining film. Hilary Swank certainly bears a striking resemblance to Earhart. So perhaps there are worse ways to spend a few hours.

But I think I'll pass on it. If The History Channel chooses to take this opportunity to show some documentaries on Earhart, I'd like to see some genuine footage of her achievements.

She was certainly a remarkable figure, and her accomplishments are worth retelling — even if we don't know what became of her.

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