'Amelia' Tells Story of Life, Tragic Disappearance of American Pioneer Aviator

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The life and tragic disappearance of pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart are dramatized in a new film starring two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank and directed by Indian-born Mira Nair. Here's a look at Amelia.

"When I was a little girl, I'd spend hours just dreaming that someday I would go to strange faraway places."

Amelia Earhart would get to those places at the controls of her aircraft, becoming one of the most famous flyers in the world of the 1920's and 30's.

She discovered her passion for piloting at an early age and by 23 was one of the few women then licensed to fly. Her enthusiasm and a bit of daredevil attitude led her to achieve numerous 'firsts' in the young field of aviation. It was on an attempt for another 'first' - a flight around the world - that Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in July 1937.

Hilary Swank has done movie characters based on real people before; but the actress found playing "Amelia" especially challenging.

"It's a big responsibility to play someone who really lived [and] it's a big responsibility to play somebody as iconic as 'Amelia' too," Swank says.  "We all have such a great idea of who she was and what she looked like, so there wasn't a lot of room for fictional license and [I think] we had to do the best we could to do honor to that person and try to navigate the best we could."

"I'm a flier pursuing my passion for the fun of it. There's more to life than being a passenger."

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"You can't play Amelia Earhart and not learn how to fly. That would just be wrong in every way," Swank says.

Swank says reading biographies and watching vintage newsreels gave her only part of what she needed to portray the character. To really understand Amelia, Swank felt she needed to learn how to pilot an airplane.

"It takes all of your senses. You are completely immersed. It is adventurous [and] dangerous," Swank explains. "It is all of the things that I love and that, I think, Amelia loved. One of the great things about my job is I get to do all of these things that I may not have experienced had I not been an actor. I think saying that I learned how to fly to play Amelia Earhart is pretty great."

In 1932 Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, four years after her first trans-Atlantic flight on which she had only been allowed as a passenger. It was among many events that thrust her into the media spotlight. Director Mira Nair says she came to understand how Amelia Earhart used that celebrity status to pursue her aviation dreams.

"For me, the real window onto understanding who she might have been was her own writings; and she wrote with a very interesting turn of phrase. 'There is more to life than being a passenger.' ' Why do you fly? I fly for the fun of it.' She had simple, pithy, but really pretty contemporary ways of writing and speaking," Nair notes. "And, I must say, what really attracted me was what I thought was a sense of great humility. She did all of this hoopla of publicity and whatever in order so she could fly. Humility is not a real American trait and I come from a place where we are taught to be humble; so I thought 'that's interesting' …that she has consistently got that humility. Whether she is getting medals or flying in the cockpit, she has a sense of "I'm really here for the ecstasy of this flight" rather than for the awards or the accolades."

Amelia does not attempt to solve the enduring mystery of exactly what happened when Earhart, flying with navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared on their globe-circling attempt in 1937. The film portrays the final flight using transcripts of the actual radio transmissions and other verified facts to suggest the chain of events that occurred. Star Hilary Swank believes, despite the pilot's tragic ending, Earhart's dream survived.

"Think about it: we fly all the time," Swank says. "There are hundreds of planes in the air right now and they're going to be there tomorrow and they are flying all of the time. When Amelia was doing it, it was a sport and she hoped that someday it would be a way of transportation."

Amelia co-stars Richard Gere as publisher George Putnam who turned Amelia Earhart into a star and, along the way, fell in love with and married her. Ewan McGregor plays Earhart's sometime lover Gene Vidal, who partnered with her to establish one of America's first commercial airline companies. Rather than rely upon computer-generated images, director Mira Nair insisted on real aircraft, so the flight scenes in Amelia feature faithful recreations of the planes she flew, including the bright red Lockheed Vega with which she crossed the Atlantic (and which is on display at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum) and the twin-engine Electra from that final, fateful journey.

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