Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, is shown in this undated file photo.
Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, is shown in this undated file photo. AP
Amelia, a biopic about the aviatrix who disappeared in 1937 trying to fly around the world, didn't get very good box-office receipts. It didn't matter that the acclaimed Mira Nair directed and two-time Academy Award winner Hillary Swank starred. Nationwide, it came in eighth out of the eight movies that opened last weekend.
But it was a solid No. 1 in Atchison, Kan. — the biggest hit the Royal Theater has seen for years. To get here from the Kansas City airport, you follow the arrow on the big hand-painted billboard with Earhart's picture on it, and then cross the Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge. I live halfway between the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, where you can view items featured in the movie, and the Atchison Public Library, which has had an Amelia movie poster up since July.
Earhart is the second-biggest draw in town, next to Benedictine College, where my film class's syllabus says that this week we're supposed to talk about "how movies get history wrong." My kids have been to a birthday party and play dates at a house across the alley from the one where Amelia held birthday parties and play dates herself. Atchison's single biggest celebration each year — and it is enormous — is the festival celebrating Amelia Earhart's birthday. My daughter once drew a picture depicting the ghost of Amelia Earhart as a kind of Godzilla figure dominating the city.
So Amelia was the center of conversations in town this weekend. Some explained away the 16 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. ("Critics hate every movie!") A neighbor complained that the story barely touched on Amelia's childhood. ("I only heard them say 'Atchison' once!") "Roger Ebert liked it," was my contribution to the discussions.
So it was with wary excitement that my wife and I queued up to see the movie Saturday night. The film is a solid two stars, not terrible, not very good — and Ebert's three stars are an acceptable stretch. But while the movie is uninspiring as a piece of filmmaking, it will be useful insofar as it whispers "Amelia Earhart" into the ears of people who haven't thought of her for years.
"Every July, the kids always ask, 'What are we celebrating?'" said a woman after Mass. "They say, 'What is she, the first woman not to make it around the world in a plane?'"
This mom, a philosophy professor's wife, raised the question as a moral issue: Was it even okay for Amelia Earhart to risk her life in what amounted to a publicity stunt?
"It's better to burn out than to fade away," I observed, quoting Neil Young.
"Virtue is the mean between two extremes," she retorted, citing St. Thomas Aquinas.
But she went on to say that she finds it sad that we human beings don't tend toward the mean naturally, but tend, rather, toward the worst extreme. "Cowardice is the extreme on one side and recklessness on the other," she said. "We tend toward cowardice — which is worse than recklessness, says St. Thomas [Aquinas]. Recklessness at least has some bravery in it."
"Exactly," I said, "Neil Young was right." Bravery is rare, and recklessness is bravery to the extreme. That's why it's important to remember Amelia Earhart — Amelia of Atchison.
Amelia was a real-life Dorothy, a Kansas girl dreaming of somewhere over the rainbow. But her story didn't end with make-believe or escapism. She actually went through the risky business of learning how to fly — and then flying, again and again.
She casually — recklessly? — broke significant rules that were unfair, then milked her celebrity status to get more money to fund more rule-breaking flights. She had the can-do spirit of early feminists and a globe-trotting showmanship worthy of modern marketers. She was Rosie the Riveter and WhereTheHellIsMatt.com all in one.
And in the end, she disappeared without a trace somewhere over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, after radioing in her last words in a calm, clear voice. She was foolhardy, vainglorious, and reckless. She was a balloon-boy mystery that didn't turn out to be a hoax. She was the Christa McAuliffe of a less nihilistic age.
So, while I can't exactly recommend the movie, I love that it paid attention to Amelia Earhart and mentioned, at least once, my new home.
Amelia represents what small people from small towns are capable of, if they aren't intimidated by the bright lights and big boasts of the cities on the coasts. Small-town folks provided the best stories on Time's latest list of "heroes and icons": Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger of Denison, Texas. Somali-pirate hunter Captain Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt. Navy Cross winner Lance Corporal Brady "Goose" Gustafson of Eagan, Minn. Even Sarah Palin of Sandpoint, Idaho (and Wasilla, Alaska) made the list.
When the song says "land of the free and home of the brave," it means people like that. People who know that the sins of the timid are worse than the sins of the reckless. Amelia Earhart is the ultimate heroine for the flyover states.