Movie review by Greg Carlson

Reviewers should have a grand time coming up with all manner of clever aviation metaphors as they trash “Amelia,” a handsome but empty biopic of iconic pilot Amelia Earhart.  One might say that Mira Nair’s film fails to take flight, that the script by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan crashes shortly after takeoff, and the dull experience of suffering through the feature will cause potential audiences to vanish without a trace.  Nair, whose hit-or-miss career as a filmmaker contains a substantial number of clunkers along with bright spots like breakthrough “Salaam Bombay!” and critical high point “Monsoon Wedding,” never gets a grip on her subject.  The result is the very nadir of the fictionalized biography: a superficial highlight reel that fails to connect us to an extraordinary life.

“Amelia” stars two-time Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank as Earhart, and the casting is only one indicator among many that the filmmakers had set their sights on Oscar recognition.  Swank certainly embraces the challenge with fierce determination, but the off-putting accent – which never even flirts with credibility – and the thudding repetition of the scenes, do the performer no favors.  Neither does the glib voiceover narration, in which Earhart describes her passion to be airborne as if practicing to write greeting cards.

Earhart’s personal relationships with the various men in her life dominate the drama and siphon attention from her drive to empower women as pilots.  Nair flirts with the idea that Earhart’s fame was the result of calculating self-promotion, but the script resolutely paints the aviatrix as a sun-kissed saint disdainful of the product endorsements she made to help finance her expensive avocation.  Richard Gere, as Earhart’s publisher and husband George Putnam, plays the realist to Earhart’s idealist.  She reminds him that she just “wants to be free” so many times that “Amelia” might have inspired a drinking game were it not so crushingly insipid.

Alongside Gere, Ewan McGregor appears as commercial aviation pioneer Gene Vidal, who purportedly entered into an affair with Earhart.  McGregor’s character exists to service the dramatic structure as the third side of a romantic triangle, but save for one prolonged kiss in an elevator, the movie offers no hint that Earhart felt passion for anything but flying.  Christopher Eccleston, as Earhart’s navigator Fred Noonan, is reduced to an alcoholic liability, giving Earhart one more opportunity to convince Putnam that she can “handle it” when her husband fears the worst.  Supporting women fare even worse: Cherry Jones plays Eleanor Roosevelt in a fleeting cameo and Mia Wasikowska barely registers as rival pilot Elinor Smith.

Even though “Amelia” zips through many of Earhart’s notable accomplishments in advance of her ill-fated around-the-world attempt, Nair handles the disappearance with piety.  The decades-long public fascination with Earhart has much to do with the unsolved status of her almost certain death.  Unwilling to entertain any of the durable conspiracy theories many of us heard about as children (including legends that Earhart spied for FDR and/or was executed by the Japanese after surviving a crash landing), Nair stages the final moments of Earhart’s life with stoicism and reverence.  With the exception of these final scenes, however, the application of so much careful obeisance melts dynamic history into tiresome lecture.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/26/09.

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