Amelia (United States, 2009)

October 22, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Amelia Poster

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.

Earhart, who was born in 1897, was the first aviatrix to make a solo flight across the Atlantic. Her enduring fame, which continues more than 70 years after her presumed death, has more to do with the mystery of her disappearance than with the accomplishments of her life. In 1937, Earhart (played in the film by Hilary Swank) and navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) attempted to circumnavigate the globe in an airplane. During the final leg of the journey, as they were approaching a Pacific Ocean refueling stop on the small Howland Island, they vanished, never to be heard from again. The mystery of Earhart's fate became a popular topic of discussion and supposition for decades. Even today, there is no certain answer to the question of what befell her and Noonan.

Nair's film starts in June 1937, with Earhart already on her way around the world. The bulk of the story is told in flashback. We meet Amelia before she was famous, when she is selected by publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), who would later become her husband, to be a passenger on a transatlantic flight piloted by a seasoned veteran. This gave her fame, and she used that fame to feed her flying habit - an obsession that culminated in 1932 with the solo flight. She became an influential role model for girls, befriended First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones), and had an affair with the influential Gene (father of Gore) Vidal (Ewan McGregor) before reuniting with Putnam and planning her greatest challenge: flying around the world.

The flashback approach is awkward and adds nothing that couldn't have been accomplished more elegantly via a standard chronological telling. When there's a purpose, a non-linear structure can be useful, but there's no compelling reason for it here, so it's a little distracting. The story is reasonably faithful to the historical record and provides some useful insights into aspects of Earhart's life that are not found in most high school history books (she was a popular spokesperson for everything from Lucky Strikes cigarettes to Amelia Earhart luggage, she was unfaithful to her husband). The tone is a little sluggish, however, and the "action" sequences (such as when she encounters a storm over the Atlantic) are not smoothly choreographed. One needs to have more than a passing interest in the aviatrix to remain interested through some of the drier chapters of her life.

Amelia doesn't whitewash Earhart; it carefully avoids lionization. She is shown to be reckless (despite her arguments to the contrary), self-centered, and obsessed. In fact, if anyone comes across as worthy of canonization, it's George Putnam, who accepts her as she is, agrees to marry on her terms, supports her potentially suicidal endeavors, and takes her back after she has an affair with another man. Richard Gere is fine as the bland publisher; he shows charisma but not of the romantic kind (to be frank, he reminded me of my maternal grandfather). Hilary Swank bears an eerie physical resemblance to Earhart (so much so that the archival photographs at the end could almost be of her and not the real Amelia) and gives a credible performance, although not one likely to attract Oscar attention. Both Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston are underused. That's especially disappointing in Eccleston's case, because Noonan seems to be a more interesting character than the title one. (Although it's doubtful a film called Fred could have been greenlighted.)

The problem with a film like this is that it leaves no lasting impression. It's workmanlike but lacks passion. The story is more like a chronicle of history than an attempt to make it come to life. I never cared much about Earhart and her romance with Putnam strikes as many sparks as wet matches on a damp night. The ending provides closure to Amelia's life without offering a definitive conclusion (although one alternative is preferred by the screenwriters). All-in-all, it's a perfectly adequate motion picture. Unfortunately, although I was diverted for the length of its running, I expect more from a movie, especially one directed by a filmmaker as talented as Nair (whose previous feature was the powerful The Namesake). This movie was made to be shown to junior high history classes, not audiences in a movie theater.

Amelia (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2009-10-23
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1