A film review by Craig J. Koban November 2, 2009


2009, PG, 111 mins.

Amelia Earhart: Hilary Swank / George Putnam: Richard Gere / Gene Vidal: Ewan McGregor / Fred Noonan: Christopher Eccleston / Eleanor Roosevelt: Cherry Jones

Directed by Mira Nair. Written by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan.

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.  

On 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: Her 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).   

All 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.   

Yet, 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 extraordinary woman. 

The 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 Christopher Eccleston).  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 that watershed trip began to cement her celebrity status.   

She 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. 

There 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.

Nonetheless, 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 personas. 

Then 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. 

Thankfully, 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.

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