— by JOEL CRARY —
Much like Amelia Earhart’s attempt at circling the globe in 1937, Mira Nair’s “Amelia” biopic about the pioneering woman pilot can’t quite make it. It lacks solid footing and never grounds itself. It takes an exceptionally dangerous profession and plays its depiction too safe, so that most of the time we never fully believe in what propelled Earhart to take such extraordinary risks.
Earhart is played by Hilary Swank, who certainly has nothing left to prove. She is clearly in love with the story and served as the film’s executive producer.
Swank strikes the right chord as Earhart, a woman whose spirit seems too big for her eyes to communicate, try as they might. Her dialogue is a string of believe-in-yourself-because-nothing-is-impossible credos, and sugary as they are, they are more often than not easy to forgive given Earhart’s accomplishments, which include a score of trailblazing solo flights and derby victories.
The film analyzes Earhart in her roles as feminist icon, saleswoman, fashionista, poet and pilot. She returns to a sense of freedom as her motivation for taking to the skies — freedom from roles prescribed by men, who dominate the field of aviation, and freedom from gravity itself. To Earhart, flying makes her feel as though she is moving in three dimensions. Hard to argue there. Her lust for personal accomplishment, however, seems inextricably tied with her attraction to celebrity. Screenwriters Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan offer some of Earhart’s narrative verse here and there to instill a sense of wonder in air travel, but the line between her personal and professional lives is blurred.
Indeed, “Amelia” attempts to present itself as a portrait of a women capable of many things, not all of them heroic. It would be admirable if it weren’t so tritely pieced together. Swank’s performance is good and even hinges on great, but Earhart’s true character always seems out of focus, relegated as it is to moments of bravado coupled with relationship turmoil. The first hour or so of the film is relatively saccharine and drab in its made-for-TV-like execution. Earhart is introduced to George Putnam (Richard Gere), a wealthy publishing magnate who sees financial potential in Earhart’s ambition. He commissions her to write a book. They end up married, but the feminist Earhart knows that marriage alone won’t guarantee happiness and may indeed hold her back as powerfully as what keeps people grounded.
Enter Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), father of young Gore and accredited aviation pioneer. Like Putnam, Vidal offers a route to personal affection through the professional. We are given a decent helping of some good old fashioned melodrama intercut with Earhart’s eventual final flight around the world. She releases her scarf from the cockpit window and marvels at the freedom of animals on the African savanna. In case that correlation doesn’t drive the point of Earhart’s joie de vivre home, the rest of it is established in spontaneous and prolix speeches given to nearly everyone she knows about what turned her into the role model she is.
The film’s crucial scene, of course, is its depiction of the events surrounding her disappearance over the Atlantic. With premiere celestial navigator and renowned souse Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) riding shotgun, the two planned to depart from Lae, New Guinea and fly to California with a stopover to refuel on Howland Island, a miniature island in the Pacific. The Itasca Coast Guard vessel attempted to guide them down to Howland, but were unsuccessful in their transmissions.
“Amelia” documents these circumstances plainly, but with real tension and tragedy, capping it with images and video of the real Earhart. The costumes and set pieces of Depression-era America ring true. It’s almost enough to redeem the film as a whole, but as exciting as the sequence is, it only highlights how relatively bland the rest of the picture is in comparison. Gere plays his role as Putnam well. I liked the way Earhart and Putnam seemed to talk to one another in dueling showman voices, even if some of their dialogue tries too hard to wring out every last bittersweet moment.
As I exited the theatre, I overhead a woman commenting that “Amelia” would be the kind of film a high school student would watch in class when learning about history. I think that’s exactly right. All of the real Earhart’s moments of historical interest are present and could be listed in point form. Unfortunately, the movie stalls at the level of the character in between. It gives us poetry but fails at being poetic.
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