Woman's Picture 

Despite a fine Hilary Swank, too much sop and pith keeps Amelia from quite soaring.

click to enlarge Hilary Swank as a plucky Amelia Earhart in the broad-strokes biopic Amelia.

Hilary Swank as a plucky Amelia Earhart in the broad-strokes biopic Amelia.

Amelia is the kind of Oscar bait that leaves me somewhere between warm and lukewarm.

On the warm side, the story of Amelia Earhart is as endlessly compelling as Hilary Swank is charming. Swank has mastered the intonation, accent, and poise of the silvery voices from old films and recordings. Her smile and effervescence are effortless. She inhabits the character masterfully. Even when her character’s sheer pluckiness becomes tedious, Swank holds forth. It couldn’t have been easy.

And warmer still are the great swathes of open sky and sea and land, which capture the immensity of Earhart’s singular achievement. Director Mira Nair wisely opted out of CGI special effects and instead chose to film authentic vintage planes in flight over the Serengeti and around the coast of Nova Scotia. The set design and costumes (Earhart was a sort of style icon as well) make for an irresistible period piece: Those halcyon days when fur-lined coats and plumed hats didn’t fear the red paint of PETA.

In the end, though, this broad-strokes biopic falls prey to its genre. Frequently superficial and sentimental, the final scenes are significantly less tear-jerking than they should have been, possibly because the crashing plane seems to carry not a complex, flesh-and-blood person, but a historical icon. The predictable romantic thread proves another pitfall. True, Earhart’s relationship with George Putnam, her agent and lover, is an interesting one, unique to its time and an indication of Earhart’s defiant character. But Nair gives it too much space in the film, and it fails to establish the profound emotional appeal it was perhaps intended to.

The story spans from Amelia’s first meeting with Putnam in 1928 to her final flight in 1937. In between are a few of the classic struggles and successes of a young woman in a male-dominated field. In one of her first flights, Earhart is told to ride as passenger, not pilot, a proposal to which she objects. From then on, the film is split into equal parts flying, keeping drunken co-pilots in line, juggling two romances at once, and photo shoots.

Earhart was an inspiration to men and women from every country she passed over or touched down in. She lived by the power of her own will. She was relentless in her passion for flying. These above all are the characteristics that demand attention. Nair has said she admires Earhart’s humility; after all, she began as a simple girl from the Kansas plains. But with a sweeping score, soppy romance, intrigue, and a script made up of pithy quotes like “I want to be free,” the film itself is anything but humble.

As something that teeters on the edge of grandiosity (flying into the vast unknown, free from earthly tethers), Earhart’s adventure should have been handled more carefully, steering us away from the easy, inspirational epic into something grittier, something more substantial, something befitting a woman who defied all expectations of her gender. My suggestion? Less romance, and more emphasis on the women Earhart looked up to and the women who looked up to her. Something tells me that’s what she would have wanted.

Amelia
Rated PG · 120 min. · 2009
Official Site: www.foxsearchlight.com/amelia
Director: Mira Nair
Writer: Ronald Bass
Producer: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Kevin Hyman and Ted Waitt
Cast: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Mia Wasikowska, Christopher Eccleston, Virginia Madsen, Joe Anderson, Aaron Abrams, Marina Stone and Duane Murray

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