'Amelia' Runs Into More Than A Little Rough Air

W: Hilary Swank in 'Amelia'

Lovely, But Earthbound: The story of Amelia Earhart — the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic, for starters — has wings. But Mira Nair's affectionate biographical drama doesn't take nearly as many risks as its heroine did. Ken Woroner/Fox Searchlight hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Woroner/Fox Searchlight

Amelia

  • Director: Mira Nair
  • Genre: Historical Drama
  • Running Time: 120 minutes

Rated PG

With: Hilary Swank, Ewan McGregor, Richard Gere

So what do you think — a plane flying into clouds, and simply disappearing? Plane flying ever closer to water, as camera pulls back to show miles of ocean in all directions? Close-up of tight-lipped aviator peering intently as the engine sputters? Shot of bronze commemorative statue with birth and death dates? Which moviemaking cliche(s) do you suppose Mira Nair has chosen for the foregone conclusion of Amelia, her handsome but stubbornly by-the-numbers hagiography of boundary-pushing pilot Amelia Earhart?

I'll not spoil the suspense, as the director's choice for the final scene is virtually the only question this inert biopic manages to keep up in the air for any length of time. The rest of the story is so earthbound and predictable that you'll find yourself muttering the lines right along with Earhart (Hilary Swank) and Richard Putnam (Richard Gere), her husband and chief promoter.

Seriously: The peripatetic Putnam tells Earhart, on the eve of her disappearance, that he's going to take her home after this one last flight, and she wonders where "home" is. Say hubby's reply with me now: "For me, anywhere you are."

Is there another answer that would justify the question's even being in the script?

Putnam was the publisher who made a fortune promoting Lucky Lindy's solo flight across the Atlantic, and when Earhart responds to an ad recruiting a female pilot to make the same flight (albeit as a passenger), it's clear he's hoping lightning will strike twice. Earhart proves more ambitious than he anticipated — she would later repeat that Atlantic crossing, this time as pilot — and after a while, by screenwriters' fiat rather than any evident onscreen passion, Putnam falls in love with her. As does she, reluctantly, with him.

She does insist on a prenup stating that they won't expect exclusivity, which allows her a later, equally desultory fling with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), father of a future writer — as we're told, again and again, when Earhart asks after young Gore.

Hilary Swank and Ewan McGregor in 'Amelia' i i

Nair's film plays up Earhart's iconoclastic impulses — even asserting a much-disputed affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), head of an FAA predecessor known as the Bureau of Air Commerce. Ken Woroner/Fox Searchlight hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Woroner/Fox Searchlight
Hilary Swank and Ewan McGregor in 'Amelia'

Nair's film plays up Earhart's iconoclastic impulses — even asserting a much-disputed affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), head of an FAA predecessor known as the Bureau of Air Commerce.

Ken Woroner/Fox Searchlight

That open-relationship business helps establish Earhart's suffragist-era feminist cred, though the mere fact of her flying — in an age when women were expected to excel only in stenography and similarly earthly pursuits — does some of that, too. In any event, her rebellious impulses would prove more useful if the screenwriters could figure out what to do with them in a script old-fashioned enough to have been written the year her plane disappeared.

Production values are fine — from shiny planes gleaming on tarmacs to rhapsodic flying sequences to snazzy '20s outfits for the star. Swank inhabits her wardrobe more persuasively than she does an on-again, off-again Midwestern accent — or indeed the character herself. Everyone concerned seems to have thought it sufficient that Swank physically resembles Earhart so closely that the filmmakers could use newsreel footage at one point rather than shooting a new scene.

But the result is verisimilitude without engagement — a risk-taker's story told entirely without narrative risk — and a movie that consequently never takes flight.

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