"Amelia Earhart," the season opener of "The American Experience" (at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24), is a neat bookend for last season's documentary on Charles Lindbergh: Both are fine biographical portraits of enigmatic idols and both illuminate the aviator behind the myth.
The Earhart documentary is particularly engrossing because while everybody is familiar with the final act--her disappearance in the Pacific in 1937, during an attempt to circle the Equator--few of us remember the details of her life.
It was a complex life. Earhart had an unstable childhood; after being kicked out of finishing school, she nursed wounded veterans in Canada during World War I. And then she had an epiphany: flying. After taking a ride with a barnstormer in L.A., she found her calling, paying for flying lessons by driving a gravel truck and taking years to save up for her own plane. She became Amelia Earhart, flyer, poet and amateur photographer, and life would never be the same.
Especially after she met promoter and publisher George Palmer Putnam. Putnam had made a killing selling Lindbergh's account of his famous solo flight; he figured to do the same with this "Lady Lindy." It was a perfect match of two ambitious people.
Putnam arranged for Earhart to make a transatlantic flight--as a passenger. Despite the fact that "the boys did all the flying," as she kept telling reporters, she became an instant celebrity.
They married in 1931; she became the first woman to solo across the Atlantic the following year. In 1936, she announced the Equator flight. The trip was ill-planned, Earhart was ill and unfocused, and instead of a full crew, she took off with only a navigator who had a drinking problem. Worse, neither of them knew much about radio communication.
Three weeks before her birthday, Earhart's plane disappeared. And that, as Gore Vidal says during the program, was "the disappearance that created the legend." "Amelia Earhart" does a superb job of unearthing the woman behind the legend.