This Amelia Earhart gal can’t catch a break, can she? First she goes missing over the Pacific Ocean in 1937, never to be heard from again; now she’s the subject of a film that’s in the running for the dullest, most lifeless biopic of the decade. Earhart’s life was as fascinating as that of any public figure in the first half of the 20th century, but you wouldn’t know it from this. What a waste of a perfectly good biography.
Hilary Swank, already an Oscar winner twice over for playing plucky, determined women, plays the famed aviatrix between the years of 1928, when Earhart achieved stardom by flying across the Atlantic (as a passenger, technically, but still), and 1937, when she disappeared. Through it all, the normally very competent Swank barely registers any emotion — any thought, even — other than, “Gee, I sure do like flying!” Amelia comes across as a generically determined and willful woman with no discernible personality.
Much of the blame for this lies with the screenplay by Ron Bass (“Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Stepmom”) and Anna Hamilton Phelan (“Gorillas in the Mist”). Rather than structuring this section of Earhart’s life into what you might call a “story,” with a “plot,” Bass and Phelan simply regurgitate a series of incidents. Here’s where Amelia did this. And here’s where she did this other thing. Why, here she is now, doing something else. These scenes have little connection to each other. One does not seem to lead to the next. Many scenes could be shown in random order without affecting anything.
Moreover, the screenplay is laden with trite dialogue and very little wit. It requires Amelia to say things like: “This [weather] report indicates some degree of risk. It’s a risk I’m taking!” Also this: “I want to be free, George. To be a vagabond of the air!”
To be a vagabond of the air, George! That would be George Putnam (Richard Gere), a New York publisher who becomes Amelia’s publicist and, eventually, her husband. (The 25-year age difference between Gere and Swank is slightly more pronounced than the 10-year difference between the real Putnam and Earhart.) Earhart was not a particularly romantic woman, at least not in the traditional lovey-dovey sense, and she didn’t cling to any old-fashioned notions about fidelity. The film shows her having a bit of a fling with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), a well-known athlete and aviator (and father of author Gore Vidal), but the only thing she’s really and truly in love with — at least as far as the film demonstrates — is flying.
Yet is there any beauty in that, any wonder or majesty or thrilling freedom? Not in the perfunctory way the film has been directed by Mira Nair (whose previous work, including “Monsoon Wedding” and “The Namesake,” has mostly been well-regarded). The mechanical details of aviation, which might have lent authenticity and helped the audience feel what Earhart felt, are ignored. None of her rhapsodic speeches, often presented in voice-over narration, convey the magic of flying in anything but cloying, cliched terms. Whatever exhilaration flying produces in her is lost on us. The best we get is a shot of a young Amelia gazing up in awe at the sky from her Kansas home.
The irony is that the final 20 minutes — the part where Amelia goes on a trip that we know she’ll never return from — comprise the most interesting part of the film. Why? Because while the outcome is already known to us, at least now, at last, there is a STORY to follow. Things are happening! We can feel the tension! We can see the worry in Amelia’s face as she loses radio contact with the island she’s looking for! This, finally, is a MOVIE! And then it’s over, and those two hours we spent watching it are gone forever.
D+ (1 hr., 51 min.; )