Directed by Mira Nair. Starring Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Mia Wasikowska. (2009, PG, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 30, 2009
“When I was a little girl,” says Amelia (Swank) at the beginning of some anecdote cum inspirational story – and no sooner do those six little words leave her mouth than the violins bully their way in. Gabriel Yared’s score is all droopy strings in search of a melody, and this biopic suffers a similar malady: It traces the facts of the final 10 years of life for America’s most famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart, but for all the high-flying camerawork, Nair’s pokey, predictable biopic never finds its true north. Yes, we all know how this ends, in a daring feat to “traverse the waistline of the world” (as one newsreel puts it) that goes horribly wrong, and Nair does a fine job of dramatizing the tension and then terror of those final hours in which Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan (Eccleston) tried in vain to pinpoint the Pacific Ocean’s tiny Howland Island for a crucial refueling stop. Curiously, it is in those final scenes of foregone conclusion that Amelia quickens its pulse; everything else in Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan’s hackneyed script is writ so large you see it coming a mile away – those anecdotes cum inspirational stories, the wild animals of Africa (seen from Earhart’s cockpit) that become the belabored metaphor for her yearning for freedom, and a damned saintliness that hangs over Earhart’s every action and interaction, even her infidelities. The script renders her intellectual and moral complicatedness merely confusing: A scene in which she encourages her lover, the Svengali-like George Putnam (Gere), to feel free to dibble-dabble in other women is followed immediately by a scene of their nuptials. Later, she will fall – inexplicably – for a fellow aeronautics junkie, Gene Vidal (McGregor, whose worst work is always done with an American accent). In casting these two great loves of Amelia’s life, Nair has settled on two of the slickest, most surface-skimming leading men – million-watt smiles, dead in the eyes – and they have a lot to do with Amelia’s relentlessly phony feel, something Swank, who is quite good (and a dead ringer for the real thing), can’t make a dent in. In her past work, such as Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair, Nair has shown great talent for rooting out moments of subtlety in the spectacle – and her last film, the underseen The Namesake, was nothing but intimate interplay between characters. But only rarely does her Amelia feel human-scale: These are cardboard cutouts from a long-ago and far cornier era, rearranged scene by scene to imply lust, inner conflict, triumph, and grief. But most devastating to the film’s effectiveness is its inability to convey that one essential to the story of Amelia Earhart: the tangible pleasures of flying.