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Director: Mira Nair; Cast: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Joe Anderson, Cherry Jones

In the 72 years since her twin-engine Lockheed Electra vanished in the Central Pacific without a trace, Amelia Earhart has become less known for her accomplishments as a trailblazing woman aviator than for getting—and staying—utterly lost. The search for America’s favorite missing person has stretched from tiny Howland Island, where she was supposed to refuel for the final leg of a round-the-equator flight, to suburban New Jersey, where she was supposed to have lived in seclusion. Close Encounters of the Third Kind speculated she’d been carried off by aliens. If only this movie dared tell us not where Earhart went, but who she was. Instead the gaze of the audience is directed upwards at Earhart as both aviator and plucky role model for earthbound dreamers. Tantalizing glimpses of Earhart’s libertine tendencies surface in a subplot about her affair with Gore Vidal’s father, politician/aviation advocate Gene Vidal (McGregor). But mostly the film ploddingly buys into the image manipulation conducted by her husband-patron-publicist George Putnam, played by Gere with the same glossy, fretless sincerity that infects the whole enterprise. Co-producer Swank comes closer than any actor imaginable to evoking Earhart’s tomboyish swagger, though she speaks with an affected Kansas twang that sounds more like an Irish brogue. Only Eccelston hits the mark with his dark-edged Fred Noonan, Earhart’s moody, alcoholic navigator.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here