There’s a power of mimicry and lavish flight photography that keeps the bio-pic “Amelia” in the air. This is not a strong motion picture, nor a particularly informative one. Instead, it’s a finely polished soap opera from a wonderful director starring fantastic actors, and nobody can quite connect the ambition of the piece with the execution. Moments of midair ecstasy hold it together and without those peaceful pauses of expression, “Amelia” is simply mawkish entertainment, stable and worthwhile for the average moviegoer, but it never finds a comfortable altitude.
Ever since her childhood in Kansas, Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank) wanted to fly. Using the publicity skills of publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), Amelia found fame as a passenger on a 1928 transatlantic flight, catapulting her name into the history books. But Amelia wanted her own glory. Eventually marrying Putnam, the couple built Amelia into a brand name, sending her into the skies and on the lecture circuit, even finding a romantic dalliance with admirer Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) along the way. Against Putnam’s wishes, Amelia desired a transatlantic solo flight, eventually looking to take on the impossible: a flight around the world. With navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) in tow, Amelia took off in 1937, sailing into the skies for the last time.
I suppose there’s some expectation for “Amelia” to focus intently on the airborne accomplishments of its heroine, seeing how her name was built on incredible leaps of skyward faith and instinct. It certainly came as a surprise to me to see that the film isn’t always interested in Amelia’s gifts, but her bedroom proclivities. Director Mira Nair searches to unearth Amelia’s heart, investigating the passions that found her bouncing between men as she craved freedom from limitation. It seems Amelia wasn’t always driven by honor, more often pushed into opportunity by the men who attempted to run her life.
Nair handles the domestic disturbance with heavy melodramatic hands, pressing Gere and Swank into a heightened state of emotion, keeping in line with the cinematic offerings of the era. The homage is clear, but the delivery is trying, especially under the tight bondage of the film’s PG rating. The picture depicts Amelia Earhart as a bisexual adulteress with a soaring heart, easily susceptible to male control. Nair handles the subplot cautiously, but it feels distracting, especially placed next to the aviation material, where the film’s heart truly lies.
Wielding exaggerated accents (Gere’s comes and goes), the leads fail to generate much heat, instead only encouraging painful pockets of overacting, trying to compete with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s amazing aerial footage by broadly overstating desire. The performances are awkward, made worse by Nair’s indecision, caught between Amelia’s legacy, built through endorsements and media curiosity, and her innate need to be in the air. The two elements of her personality never gel properly into a convincing feature.
I’ll give Nair this, she does make history exciting again. The final act, where Amelia’s fate is sealed somewhere over the Pacific, is a harrowing sequence of miscommunication and acceptance, generating astounding tension. Here, the merging of wonder and panic creates a strong brew of suspense, taking a conclusion widely documented and making it feel sickening all over again. “Amelia” could’ve used more of this inspired manipulation.
As I walked out of the screening, I tried to assess what I learned about Amelia over the course of the feature. What the film offers is melodrama, more interested in the aviatrix’s bedroom activities than her spirit. The picture doesn’t track her heroism or her elevated determination, soon reflected in the eyes of millions of impressionable young women. “Amelia” hunts for complexity, but it only achieves a tedious middle ground. Amelia Earhart left behind an amazing legacy of accomplishments and exited the world creating one of history’s most enduring mysteries. Her story is a mighty creature, but “Amelia” can only muster a dull roar.