Emitting a toothy, freckled wholesomeness plus a whiff of tomboy rebellion, Hilary Swank portrays Amelia Earhart in an earthbound biography that lacks adventure and romance. Don't expect to see Oscar-winner Swank flying high come awards time. The viewer walks out of Amelia certain of only one thing: the legendary aviatrix remains an elusive figure.
Those expecting a stirring portrait of a feminist pioneer will be disappointed by the ethereal ambiguity of Amelia. Aviation buffs will also feel dissatisfied, as her achievements aren't put into historical context or rendered especially thrilling. Earhart is rendered a predictable trailblazer whose disappearance over the Pacific in 1937 wasn't all that mysterious.
Mira Nair's film resembles a balsa wood glider stripped of narrative power, historical context, and excitement and then painted in pretty colors. It gets airborne courtesy of a lush score and some well-photographed scenery, but it never climbs high enough or travels a satisfying distance. The long and short of it: Ms. Earhart yearned to fly and be free. We might have figured that much. For a movie about an adventurer, there's a definite lack of serendipity on display in this ambivalent hagiography.
As a love story, it does offer a positive message about the bonds of matrimony, even while failing to find any depth in Earhart's relationship with her promoter and husband George Putnam (Richard Gere). Their unconventional union was tested and ultimately strengthened by her intimate rapport with aeronautics executive Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor). But we're never clear why she and Putnam fell in love or what Vidal gave her. After warning she wasn't interested in a conventional marriage and then straying with Vidal, she feels guilty and atones. For his part, the publisher and PR pioneer Putnam eventually realizes he has exploited his wife for commercial gain.
No one could expect Nair (Monsoon Wedding), working from a script based on two literary biographies, to provide the definitive take on Earhart's personality or unearth her secrets as a lover (let alone to solve the mystery of her disappearance). Still, there's a degree of ambivalence and sketchiness here that proves frustrating and soporific. The allure of flying is only apparent at a poetic level, which helps fuel doubts about Earhart's piloting skills and intimations "Lady Lindy" was most accomplished at being a celebrity. We rarely see her behind the controls of an airplane and when we do, she's usually gazing out the cockpit window with an amateurishly dreamy look in her eyes or fretting as danger looms.
Covering the period of 1928 through July 1937, with two brief flashbacks to Earhart as a tomboy in Kansas, the scenario cuts back and forth between her fateful attempt to circumnavigate the globe with navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) and her exploits from the time Putnam selected her to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger. Depicting her demise was always going to be the film's major challenge and the modestly nail-biting climax refrains from any radical conjecture while using available evidence to identify likely causes.
The screenplay, credited to Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, doesn't provide enough opportunity for Swank to exhibit award-winning range in a role for which she's ideally suited. The only knock on the actress is that she sounds as if she's mimicking the Brahmin voice of Kate Hepburn. Gere's patrician accent comes and goes like the wind, along with his gray hair. Whatever glamour Amelia has by virtue of their casting is squandered.
It was up to the filmmakers to present Earhart's achievements in a way that would appear monumental to contemporary audiences. Yet they seem reluctant to lionize or criticize her enough -- to bare her charisma and sense of derring-do or her faults. We come away suspecting Amelia was a dilettante and thus unable to control her destiny. In one fell swoop, this suspicion undercuts any attempt by the movie to conjure romance, tragedy or adventure.
(Released by Fox Searchlight and rated "PG" for some sensuality, language, thematic elements and smoking.)