Directed by Mira Nair
Screenplay by Ronald Bass, Anna Hamilton Phelan
Amelia Earhart – Hilary Swank
George Putnam – Richard Gere
Gene Vidal – Ewan McGregor
Fred Noonan – Christopher Eccleston
Bill – Joe Anderson
Eleanor Roosevelt – Cherry Jones
Elinor Smith – Mia Wasikowska
Gore Vidal – William Cuddy
Visually Stunning, Emotionally Lacking
Watching Amelia – a biopic of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart – is akin to spending two hours reading a Wikipedia entry on the title character.
With two biographies as source material, the adaptation by screenwriters Anna Hamilton Phelan and Ron Bass tries to cram in too many facets of a 10-year period in Amelia Earhart’s life. This results in a film that jumps from scene to scene without flow like bullet points on a fact-sheet.
The film starts with an eager but green Earhart (Hilary Swank, who is also an executive producer on the film) meeting New York publisher and future husband George Putman (Richard Gere, cast once again opposite a much younger woman). He makes her famous as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Over the next decade, we see her rise to greater heights both literally and figuratively, up until that fatal final flight where she and navigator Fred Noonan (a terrific Christopher Eccelston) disappear over the Pacific Ocean, never to be seen or heard from again.
The source material is provided by author Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn and Mary Lovell’s The Sound of Wings. The latter focuses on Earhart’s relationship with Putman, who crafted her image and helped finance her flights by making her into a promotional machine, serving up endorsements, commercials and public appearances. East to the Dawn documents her friendship with first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her affair with Gene Vidal, an aviator and businessman.
Unfortunately for the film, not much is explored in Earhart’s relationship with Roosevelt. The former First Lady, played wonderfully by Cherry Jones, is almost reduced to a cameo. Meanwhile, Earhart’s affair with Vidal (an underused Ewan McGregor) is practically glossed over. Nothing is shown on screen and save for a few conversations and jealous looks, the whole thing is handled with such trepidation, it’s as if the filmmakers did not want to offend those historians still skeptical that this love affair actually occurred. Thus, a potentially exciting on-screen love triangle never has the chance to develop. It’s a shame the opportunity was wasted.
The most baffling plot point is Earhart’s relationship with a young female aviator and fan, Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska), whose own place in aviation history is also secured by the flying records she broke. (Hey, look her up on Wikipedia why don’t you?)
Seventeen-year-old Smith meets her idol in a hotel room the day after Earhart first sleeps with Putman. Later, Putman undermines Smith during an all-female flight race so that she would not be a threat to his wife. Smith promptly disappears from the film after those two aforementioned scenes. There’s no mention of her, why Putman behaved this way or if Earhart even knew about it. Smith reappears towards the end when, many years later, she is shown receiving an award. Earhart and Putman are in the audience, clapping. This story arc, if it can even be called one, doesn’t appear to serve any purpose. It is not tied in to the rest of the film and might as well have been another movie.
Such bewildering and brief occurrences by Smith, Roosevelt and others makes one feel like Earhart’s life is being skimmed over rather than delved into and explored.
Swank, who has won two Oscars for her performances in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, certainly looks and acts the part. Swank studied hours of newsreels and learned Earhart’s speech patterns and her hard work is shown. The appearance – the talk and the walk – is all there, but there is not much coming from within that touches the audience. This leaves viewers with a lack of any true appreciation for Earhart’s accomplishments and no emotional reaction at the end when it become clear that the plane will not make it.
Director Mira Nair deserves much of the blame here. There are plenty of visually pretty air shots – Earhart’s plane flying over clouds, over water, through storms, over Africa, etc. – yet she gives is no insight into what it was about Earhart that made her “America’s Sweetheart.”
Furthermore, Nair chooses to play it safe by directing an uninspiring paint-by-numbers biopic complete with voice-overs from the now dead Amelia (“We all have ocean’s to fly…”), montages to speed up time, black-white newsreel footage to add authenticity, and the flashing of newspaper headlines to show historical significance. One would think that Nair’s beautiful Bollywood films would have brought some magic touch to this very American story.
The film will inevitably draw comparisons to another flying biopic, the far superior Martin Scorcese film Aviator. The 2004 film about Howard Hughes (played by Leonardo Di Caprio) was sweeping and epic in scope, something Amelia lacks.
Whereas the choppy Amelia puts historical facts first and then attempts to sprinkle personal information within that framework, Aviator was the opposite. Scorcese focused on the troubled, brilliant, tragic man first and foremost. The historical facts and his accomplishments were built around that and served as backdrop. That is why the dysfunctional love he shared with Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett who won an Oscar for her performance) worked so well – because it was explored within that context. Viewers walked away feeling like they got a chance to know this complex man a bit more than before they entered the theaters.
Unfortunately, none of this is found in Amelia. Earhart’s love for the skies, her determination to succeed and her relationships with others never touch us deeply. With a biopic like this, if you know how the ride is going to ultimately end, at least make it a fun adventure getting there. Certainly Amelia Earhart would have wanted it that way.
[Photo above by Ken Woroner]