It should have been a perfect match of filmmaker and subject matter: Mira Nair, whose films have often dealt with the struggles of women who buck their cultures’ expectations, helming a biopic about legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart. But Nair’s film is so concerned with canonizing its subject that it robs her of any humanity, turning her into the very sort of idealized paper doll that Earhart refused to allow herself to become. With its lavish production design and sumptuous photography, Amelia is beautiful to behold, but it’s a superficial, dull film that spends its entire running time trundling down a pitted runway, never taking to the air.
Amelia mostly concerns itself with the years between Earhart’s (Hilary Swank) news-making 1928 flight across the Atlantic (as a passenger) to her fateful attempt at circumnavigating the globe in 1937. Along the way she marries publisher/promoter George Putnam (Richard Gere), but only after inserting a clause that permits either of them to get it on with whomever they please. Earhart’s wanderlust eventually leads her into the arms of West Point aeronautics instructor Gene Vidal (Gore’s dad, played by Ewan McGregor), who will also play a key role in her career. Through it all, Earhart’s star rises. “Lady Lindy” is the most famous woman in America, and the line of people waiting to exploit her fame goes all the way around the block. Earhart plays the game, but only to fund her passion for flight.
Though it faithfully recounts pivotal events in Earhart’s life, Amelia offers absolutely no insight into her character. The script prattles on endlessly and repetitiously about Earhart’s desire to be free, but offers nothing but schmaltzy platitudes that could have been lifted from those nauseating “inspirational” posters that some sick bastard decided should adorn the walls of every office in America. Why is Earhart driven to fly? Because she saw an airplane and she liked it. Next question, please.
Swank’s performance—and it pains me to write this—is not good. Much has been made of her striking physical resemblance to the doomed pilot, but the terrifically talented actress is best suited for contemporary dramas. She’s ill at ease in Amelia’s period trappings, and the dialogue seems wooden and cumbersome in her mouth. (In her defense, though, it was that way before it ever got to her; screenwriters Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, working from two weighty biographies, have composed dialogue so stilted and clichéd that it’s a wonder anyone could keep a straight face throughout an entire take.) McGregor is completely wasted as the dapper Vidal, who serves no real dramatic function in the script but to give Earhart a sounding board for yet more talk about her desire for freedom. Gere fares a little better as the cunning but love-struck Putnam, but not much. He’s easily the most engaging character in the film—remember, everything’s relative—and Gere plays him with rakish aplomb, even as he’s forced to deliver truly appalling dialogue. (“Only you, my dear Amelia, could say such brutal words to me, and still have me wanting to be with you forever.” Good god.)
The script’s failings aren’t confined to goofy dialogue. Nair and her scribes seem to have adopted a novel approach to rewrites that involved finding anything even vaguely interesting in the early drafts and crossing it out. The movie is full of truly remarkable events—Earhart’s dramatic solo flight across the Atlantic, her meeting with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the formation of a group of daring female pilots called the Ninety-Nines—but they’re all presented with a workmanlike banality that would have been better suited to a scholastic documentary. No one seems to have anything to say about Earhart as a person. She went places and met people and did stuff, and then she disappeared. And yep, she liked to fly—what else do you really need to know?
A great deal, as a matter of fact. Who was she, really? What drove her to do such incredible things? Nair and company clearly meant well, but they were too concerned with piecing together an overly reverential homage to bother with such questions.
There’s probably a less interesting biopic out there somewhere, but I hope I never have to watch it. Amelia comes wrapped in lots of pretty paper, but it emphatically and ironically lacks the one thing Earhart’s name is guaranteed to conjure: A sense of adventure. Earhart and her fellow pioneering aviatrixes deserved so much better.