A film review by Craig J. Koban November 2, 2009
2009, PG, 111 mins.
2009, PG, 111 mins.
Amelia Earhart: Hilary Swank / George Putnam: Richard Gere / Gene
Vidal: Ewan McGregor / Fred Noonan: Christopher Eccleston / Eleanor
Roosevelt: Cherry Jones
Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries outside of what happened to Amelia Earhart during her final and fatal flight in 1937 is how such a dull, prosaic, and frustratingly lackluster biopic could be made of her life and times as an aviator extraordinaire.
paper, AMELIA has so much going for it: an Academy Award winning
screenplay co-written by Ron Bass (who won for RAIN MAIN in 1988); an
Academy Award nominated director in Mira Nair (whose 1988 SALAAM BOMBAY!
was up for Best Foreign Language Film); and Hilary Swank, a two-time Oscar
winning actress – and arguably one of the finest of her generation –
serving as both executive producer and assuming the title role. Yet, this solid filmmaking collective never once makes
AMELIA soar to high dramatic crescendos.
One of the film’s end title cards indicates that the
disappearance of Earhart has intrigued people for generations.
That’s highly ironic, because the film here does a thorough job
of never making this historical aviator an intriguing case study that
leaves a lasting impression.
Earheart herself is a figure that hardly needs any exposition on my part:
life was certainly the stuff of Hollywood legend.
Born in 1897, she became a noted American aviator, author, and
girl-empowered heroine that became the first woman to fly solo over the
Atlantic Ocean during a time when the woman’s suffragette movement was
struggling to maintain their collective voice in society.
She went on to win the Distinguished Flying Cross for that
aforementioned effort and would later go on to set many more aviatrix
records. Her achievements further led to a career of writing best selling
books chronicling her flights as well as longstanding lecture tour
circuit. Perhaps more
important is how she also became a member of the National Woman’s Party
and an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Her noteworthy flying experience and celebrity status was also
instrumental in the formation of the Ninety-Nine’s, an organization of
all-female pilots. She was
arguably the most famous woman on the planet that became a role model for
so many young women; she also befriended
high-ranking people like Eleanor Roosevelt and became even more
notoriously close to certain men, like the
son of the Gore Vidal (whom she had an affair with).
of her noteworthy undertakings, however, paled in comparison to her infamous fate:
During a circumnavigational flight of the globe in 1937 in a Purdue-funded
Lockheed L-10 Electra, Earhart disappeared – never to be heard from or
seen again – over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island.
Intense fascination with her life became almost secondary to her
disappearance and apparent death, which has fixated people to the present
day. Without question,
Earhart still is an integral figure in 20th Century American history
not only for her legendary and trendsetting feats, but also because of how
the mystery of her demise still lingers.
She was - and still is - as captivating as she was enigmatic.
again I must ask: How could AMELIA be such a trite, by-the-books, and
irritating bore? Yes,
the film does a very good job of capturing the look and feel of its early
20th Century locales and it further does a decent job of
combining contemporary newsreel footage of the actual Earhart with
location shooting, stunning aerial photography, and special effects wizardry.
The screenplay itself – drawing inspiration from such Earhart
biographies such as EAST OF THE DAWN, THE SOUND OF WINGS, and AMELIA
EARHART: THE MYSTERY SOLVED – is reasonably faithful to the historical
record and manages to drop in some of the lesser known aspects of the
aviatrix’s life (some of which surprised even me).
However, it’s not the look, tone, or focus that’s a lamentable
bummer here, but rather the whole old-school execution of the film, which
straddles unsatisfyingly between a tame, conventional, and cliché-ridden
biopic of yesteryear and one of those really mechanical and charmless TV
movies-of-the week. Considering
the ambition of the source material and the skills and abilities of the
cast and crew, that’s a shame, which is made all the more shameful
seeing that a less-than-extraordinary treatment has befallen a truly
film concentrates on Earhart's life between the late 1920’s and her final flight in 1937,
and it does an exceedingly exasperating job of jumping backwards and
forwards in time throughout between those periods during the film.
This only contributes to the elephantine pacing of the film, not to
mention that its segueing in and out of time is confusing and
awkward (a linear style of storytelling would have been a wiser
alternative). The film begins
in June of 1937 as Earhart (Swank) is already on her way around the
world with her navigator, Fred Noonan (the smooth and crisp tongued
From here the story is told mostly in flashbacks, but it revisits
the pair on their lethal voyage in snippets here and there.
When we meet Amelia before she was famous she is picked by a
wealthy publisher - and her future husband – George Putnam (Richard Gere)
to become a passenger on a transatlantic flight that was piloted by a
skilled male veteran. Even though she was just a passenger, her participation on
watershed trip began to cement her celebrity status.
would use this newfound fame to help further her own solo-flying career
(which culminated in a 1932 solo flight, which all but paved her way to
aviation glory). In order to
fund her future exploits in the skies, Earhart would go on to launch her
own brand name fashion line as well as brandying her name to just about
every other conceivable product (a modern sensibility would easily label
her as an overexposed media whore, but her spokeswoman career pitching
commercial products was an ends to a justifiable means: she needed funding to
continue her career). By the
mid-1930’s she would become the first pilot to travel solo from Hawaii
to California, which made her the stuff of feminist-fuelled legend.
The media frequently dubbed her "Lady Lindy" (mostly because of her
linkage to her male counterparts in the field like Charles Lindbergh) and
while she became the talk of the press and society, she secretly partook in
adulterous affairs by cheating on her husband with Gene Vidal
(played with charisma and dash by Ewan McGregor), but rightfully ended it before it
destroyed the fabric of her shaky marriage.
From this point she focused all of her energy and time on her dream
mission: to become the first woman to fly around the world.
The rest, alas, is history, and her perceptible death – and the
reasons behind it – still reverberate seven decades later.
are aspects to appreciate here in AMELIA, like, as mentioned, how the film
concentrates on the lesser known elements of her life that would not
become part of widespread colloquial knowledge: This would include a nifty
montage in the film
showing her endorsement of everything from cigarettes to household
appliances, and, most definitely, her sexual indiscretions (which the film
may gloss over a bit too simplistically). The
film portrays Amelia in overly broad strokes, but there are times
when we see her as a figure of interesting contradictions: she was smart,
cagey, determined, and strong-willed, but she was also a self-obsessed and
reckless, infrequently listening to the common-sense concerns of her skeptics.
She was, on one hand, the epitome of a fiercely independent woman,
but she found herself inexplicably lured into the world of the celebrity
limelight and advertising, the latter which had a hold on her so tight
that it defies what it means to be a free and liberated spirit. On a positive, this film’s incarnation of Earhart is at least
not one-dimensional and limiting.
too many of the film’s other choices tasted sour, the first of which are,
surprisingly enough, Swank and Gere themselves, whom
together generate little, if any, screen chemistry and are further
hampered by their stilted and aggressively mannered performances.
Swank herself – who looks eerily like the real Earhart – adopts
such an off-putting, Katherine Hepburn-inflection and tenor that she feels
more like she’s making climatic sermons than engaging in dialogue
exchanges (Gere fares even worse, as his performance is a textbook
exercise in posing and looking the part, but never feeling like he
inhabits it). Even though
good actors like Macgregor and Eccleston go for the more agreeably low
key and understated approach, Swank and Gere come off more as
actors playing archetypes than flesh and blood people. You never feel like there is an emotional conduit into these
there are the other embarrassing faults of the film, like its gag-inducing
commentary (often in voice-over-narration by Swank) going to fantastical
lengths to explain Earheart’s attitudes towards marriage, aviation,
female autonomy and empowerment, and so forth (many that were apparently
taken from journals, but most of which feel like they were taken from the
PATCH ADAMS school of manipulative, inspirational cornball melodrama. Instead of letting the story do much of the talking, we hear
Swank pontificate on a slew of rousing messages, my personal favourites
being “Dreams have no boundaries” and “Everyone has their oceans to
bravely cross.” If these
monumentally hooky and eye-rolling verbal asides are not enough, we
frequently get an overbearingly distracting and operatic musical score by
Gabriel Yared that hits viewers over the heads by telling them exactly
what they are supposed to feel from scene to scene.
I am usually a fan of large, symphonic film scores, but this one
feels mightily telegraphed.
the film’s final sequence (no need for spoiler warning here, folks)
chronicling the last ten minutes of radio communication from Earheart are
terrifically gripping, despite the fact that we know with absolute
precision what her fate would be. Nair
and her cinematographer and visual effects craftsman also do a nice job
of capturing and allure and pageantry of early airplane travel (AMELIA if
anything, looks slick and polished).
As handsome and ambitiously mounted as this biopic is, the failure
of the film is how it lacks in intrigue and emotional resonance.
There is little in the way of imagination or invention with
transplanting the Earhart legend to the big screen.
Instead, all we are essentially dealt with is a treatment of one of
the great rule-breaking, pioneering historical icons of the last hundred
years that is bereft with lame brained Hollywood conventions, clichés,
and mechanical and unfeeling performances. This
film just feels too woefully conservative, unadventurous, tame-hearted, and
soft-pedaled, which certainly does not do service to the courageous,
risk-taking, and rousing heroine that Earhart was and still is to
millions. No film about her
should feel so limp-wristed and inconsequential, and Earhart's gumption and brave
pedigree deserves better than this.