Biopic 'Amelia' Crashes Quickly After Takeoff

Photo: Freefallin'. Much of Mira Nair's 'Amelia' focuses on the romance between George Putnam (Richard Gere) and Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank).
Ken Woroner, Fox Searchlight/Courtesy
Freefallin'. Much of Mira Nair's 'Amelia' focuses on the romance between George Putnam (Richard Gere) and Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank).

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Unlike the enduring icon it portrays, "Amelia" remains firmly entrenched in the hangar of Hollywood-style mediocrity. As a screen biography, the film is disappointingly formulaic; as a period piece, it is depressingly conventional; as the latest entry in the distinguished career of filmmaker Mira Nair, its failure at capturing Amelia Earhart's incomparable aura is both puzzling and frustrating. Working within the confines of a bombastic script by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, Nair seems unable to breathe any form of cinematic life into her portrait of the legendary aviatrix, a caveat that ultimately sinks the film as quickly as its heroine ascends to the adoring international spotlight.

Framed by a flashback structure that provides glimpses of Earhart's famous last flight before her untimely departure, the film's narrative is otherwise as straightforward as biographical pieces get. In 1928, Earhart (Hilary Swank) explodes into instant stardom by becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, shattering another record as the first woman to do it solo four years later. In between, she meets and falls in love with publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), who helps promote her public image before asking for her hand in marriage. He succeeds, after some resistance from the fiercely independent Earhart, and for an extended period of screen time Nair transforms the film into a zero-chemistry romance hampered by underwhelming love scenes and laughably stilted delivery.

Of course, this would all be slightly more forgivable if "Amelia" managed to capture Earhart's significance as a feminist role model or even her passion for flying; although it makes an earnest attempt at both, the film accomplishes neither. Nair, an artist who captures poignant moments of humanity in films such as "Salaam Bombay!" and "Monsoon Wedding," seems to vacillate between the superficiality of a motivational epic and the intimacy of a character study. As a result, she lays out the film's structure predictably, almost timidly. A central love triangle between Earhart, Putnam and aeronautics professor Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) sputters awkwardly. In a similar vein, Earhart's desire to achieve her personal aspirations comes across as too lofty and clichéd to feel genuine. Capable of staggering screen presence, Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry," "Million Dollar Baby") manages to channel Earhart's freckles and androgynous charm, yet falters at harnessing the aviatrix's singular persona.

Ironically, the conclusion of "Amelia," predictable even by grade-school standards, emerges as the film's strongest asset. Earhart's disappearance from the skies over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, midway through the last leg of her unprecedented flight around the world with Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), has long since drowned in a sea of 20th-century urban legends. However, its cinematic recreation is faithful instead of fanciful. In stark contrast with the rest of the film, these last 15 minutes are refreshing and enthralling. Cross-cutting between Earhart and Noonan's apprehension in the cockpit and the confusion of the radio receiving room as they gradually lose contact with each other, Nair builds a montage of impending despair that both exhilarates and horrifies. Nestled in his home, Putnam's despair becomes genuine, and Earhart's banal narration throughout the film finally musters some semblance of emotional resonance.

If only "Amelia" as a whole were able to match the brilliance and bravery of its own final act. In the end, Nair's use of stock black-and-white footage of the actual aviatrix serves to remind us that Amelia Earhart's legacy continues to soar, as does the tantalizing mystery of her final hours. But virtually nothing about Mira Nair's handsomely mounted but emotionally empty portrait changes the notion that "Amelia" may well be destined for biopic obscurity.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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