Ouch. And it doesn't get much better, either.
Amelia, which opens today, was directed by Mira Nair and adapted from two Earhart biographies, Susan Butler's East to the Dawn and Mary S. Lovell's The Sound of Wings. But according to critics, it seems the screenwriters went to great lengths to purge the film of many of the more interesting aspects of her unusual life, and instead focused on her marriage to publishing magnate George P. Putnam (Richard Gere). The film cuts back and forth between Earhart (Hilary Swank) in the cockpit during her doomed final flight, and the decade preceding it, during which she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and an international celebrity.
Critics say that while Swank captures Earhart's physicality, she isn't given very good dialogue to work with. The script smooths over the many controversies surrounding her life, including her open marriage to Putnam, her rumored bisexuality, and whether or not she was a spy. Though the film delves into the love triangle between Earhart, Putnam and Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), her affair with Vidal only amounts to one fairly chaste kiss in an elevator. As one critic puts it, the film is less exciting than a History Channel documentary.
The movie is imprisoned in safety. The script by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan makes gestures in the right direction. It touches on the most modern aspect of Earhart's story: that from the get-go the image of this would-be free spirit was marketed like crazy. Putnam functioned as Earhart's Madison Avenue Svengali, although the filmmakers can't bring themselves to condemn him. He's a tender father/lover who just happens to want Amelia to make money. This is America, he keeps reminding her, and it's dollars that allow her to fly. But Amelia boasts some of the most horrific examples of biopic dialogue I've ever heard. When Amelia can't decide what to do about her adulterous love for Gene Vidal, played by Ewan McGregor, he says, "Just ask yourself," and Amelia says - "I'm not sure who that is anymore."
Freckle-faced, prairie-voiced and fiercely independent, Hilary Swank's depiction of aviator Amelia Earhart in Mira Nair's biographical film Amelia is of a high order. It ranks with recent real-life portrayals of Ray Charles by Jamie Foxx and Truman Capote by Philip Seymour Hoffman and could be similarly awards-bound.
I'm not suggesting that Mira Nair and her writers, Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, should have invented anything for Amelia. It is right that they resisted any temptation. It's just that there's a certain lack of drama in a generally happy life... "Amelia" is a perfectly sound biopic, well directed and acted, about an admirable woman. It confirmed for me Earhart's courage — not only in flying, but in insisting on living her life outside the conventions of her time for well-behaved females.
On the surface, the film appears to be a dispiriting awards-season white elephant, a triumph of production design, period costumes, and hollow bio-drama. The movie's trailer adds to the sense of déjà vu: Is this a sequel to Out of Africa, or a gender-bending remake of The Aviator, or what? Yet inside Amelia is a sharp idea struggling to get out: How does a woman marketed to the public as a star turn herself back into a human being? And at what cost? It's a question for our times, and the one novelty of Mira Nair's film is that it sets the conundrum in an earlier era, when celebrity branding wasn't yet a national way of life... The film's actual climax may have come earlier and more quietly, when Earhart is asked by a reporter, "Are you a better celebrity than a pilot?'' She doesn't come up with a convincing answer and neither does the movie. It asks the question, though, and that's a start.
Mira Nair's Amelia is a by-the-book bio-pic. By following the template, it's as safe and straightforward as one could possibly get, without narrative flourishes and with minimal exaggeration to satisfy Hollywood's appetite for fictionalization. That's not bad, but it's not necessarily good, either. Amelia Earhart led an active and interesting enough life that a simple re-telling of events works to a degree. It helps that Hilary Swank looks and acts the part and that Nair's style never gets in the way of the story. While this may not be the definitive Earhart biography, Amelia is watchable.
Amelia's narrative adheres to the standard biopic formula. It limits its focus to about a decade, during which Earhart takes her first trans-Atlantic flight as a passenger/commander in 1928 to her disappearance in 1937. She is an intrinsically fascinating subject, but we don't get a sense of what propelled her to such courageous heights. Familiar platitudes, headline montages and voice-over pontificating bog down the story in superficiality.
Amelia is a frustratingly old-school, Hollywood-style, inspirational biopic about Amelia Earhart that doesn't trust a viewer's independent assessment of the famous woman pictured on the screen. The mystery we ought to be paying attention to is: What really happened on the legendary American aviator's final, fatal flight in 1937? But the question audiences are left with is this: How could so tradition-busting a role model have resulted in so square, stiff, and earthbound a movie? Why present such a modern woman in such a fusty format?
And Swank wears those clothes well: She gives a wonderful physical performance here. In fact, she tells us more about Earhart's life through her body language than she does in the dialogue. Swank's Earhart has a broad but slow-burning smile; her gait suggests a person who's gangly-graceful, generous and approachable — as Earhart, Swank's very limbs seem to call out, "Howdy!" But as perfect as Swank is for this role, the dialogue sounds stiff and overwritten as it emerges from her lips. Swank has strong, marvelous features, yet she's an actress of remarkable delicacy — that combination is part of what generally makes her so pleasurable to watch. But in Amelia she comes off as awkward and uncertain, as if she were trying to underplay the movie's too-obvious dialogue and not fully able to bring it into focus.
The sinewy strength and controlled aggression that Swank used to such good effect for her Oscar-winning roles in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby is mostly diminished in Amelia by a poster-girl smile. So ever-present is that grin, whether in the cockpit, or a cocktail party or on the promotional circuit for everything from luggage to clothes that you worry it has forever lined Swank's face. But we get little of the woman behind the smile. Where is the steely force that drives grand ambition, the fears, the flaws?
Look, nobody's asking for a miniseries here, but at times the movie feels more like a History Channel documentary — respectful to the point of reverential — than a rip-snorting yarn. And that's despite a scene where Earhart almost falls out of the plane while soaring over the Atlantic Ocean in what looks like an airborne tin can. Would that the film had taken as many risks. When it comes to some of the wild speculation that has arisen over the years about what happened to Earhart during that final flight, the movie doesn't even go out on a limb, opting instead for the sort of vague, open ending that, is historically safe and cinematically dull.
To say that Amelia never gets off the ground would be an understatement; it barely makes it out of the hangar. Handsomely mounted yet dismayingly superficial, Mira Nair's film offers snazzy aerial photography and inspirational platitudes in lieu of insight into Amelia Earhart's storied life and high-flying career. Prestigious packaging, led by Hilary Swank's gussied-up performance as the iconic aviatrix, portends friendly commercial skies for the Fox Searchlight release, at least initially. But critical disdain is unlikely to be countered by much audience enthusiasm, even among admirers of this kind of old-fashioned, star-powered bio-mush.
If Amelia has any value (which is a dubious proposition), it's as an object lesson in the follies of the conventional biopic, which puts mindless recapitulation of historical data above analysis or insight. The messy fascination of life is replaced by a schematic series of setups and payoffs. The second it's mentioned that Christopher Eccleston's navigator is a recovering alcoholic, it's clear that it's only a matter of time before he falls off the wagon at a pivotal moment. His lived-in performance is one of the film's only bright spots, though, along with Cherry Jones' fleeting turn as an impish Eleanor Roosevelt.
Ms. Swank, for her part, tries to inhabit a role with no living quarters. The writing is all about externals-what Amelia says rather than what she feels, what she looks like (glamorous, though she says she wears pants because she doesn't like her legs, and feminine, though there's one fleeting hint of more complex sexuality). Even the flying is about externals. Apart from admiring her new Electra and pushing an occasional throttle, the most famous female pilot in history displays no particular affinity for the gorgeous machinery at her disposal. The whole movie is a failure to communicate.
Alas, excesses of any pleasurable kind are absent from this exasperatingly dull production. The director Mira Nair, whose only qualification appears to be that she's a woman who has made others films about and with women (Mississippi Masala, Vanity Fair), keeps a tidy screen - it's all very neat and carefully scrubbed. I don't recall a single dented automobile or a fissure of real feeling etched into a face. Bathed in golden light, Amelia and G. P. are as pretty as a framed picture and as inert... With her rangy figure, Ms. Swank fills Earhart's coveralls and leather jackets nicely. But there's little to the performance other than the actress's natural earnestness and smiles so enormous, persistent and consuming that the rest of Earhart soon fades, much like the Cheshire Cat. As usual, Mr. Gere holds your attention with beauty and a screen presence so recessive that it creates its own gravitational pull. The actors don't make a persuasive fit, despite all their long stares and infernal smiling. (The movie is a more effective testament to the triumphs of American dentistry than to Earhart or aviation.) It's hard to imagine anyone, other than satirists, doing anything with the puerile, sometimes risible dialogue.