Directed by Mira Nair
Mira Nair's Amelia Earhart biopic takes great pains to convey the American aviator's zen pursuit of freedom, and does so in a restless, flighty fashion that would surely have pleased its subject. It's a stylish portrait sketched in broad strokes that will leave those who prefer their biopics rendered in exhaustive detail unsatisfied. The film's jittery pace ultimately means it doesn't work as an impressionist character study either, all its brief, beautiful scenes adding up to a beautiful period piece with not much feeling and even less filling.
Save two brief, magical realist flashbacks to Earhart's childhood on a Kansas farm, Amelia unfolds between 1928 and 1937 amidst America's elite class. The rest of the country is filled out with copious cutaways to vintage newsreels and fleeting glances, through car windows and spinning newspapers' headlines, at a populace in the grips of the Great Depression. Earhart (Hillary Swank) comes off as more of a Midwestern mystic than a historical figure, guiding the narrative's journey from take-off to water landing with soft voiceovers that are just warm enough to keep the film cruising along on its trajectory.
Swank carries the picture with the kind of lived-in comfort that we've come to expect from her, though Nair rarely slows down long enough for us to get a sense of this fully fleshed-out character—even at 111 minutes, Amelia feels short and insubstantial. Slightly less impressive but undeniably enjoyable, Richard Gere does a great quintessential capitalist as George Putnam, Earhart's manager, editor and, eventually, husband. This consummate, cosmopolitan businessman who wears gray every day provides the perfect foil to Earhart's fiery, freckled, twinkly-eyed idealist. Both are variations on the American ethos: one who believes that with enough willpower anyone can reach the utopia that lies just over the horizon; the other who proclaims in an early scene: "I'm American, my job's to make the most money I can." Sadly, their scenes together are rarely more than a few minutes long and come off, even after they marry, like business meetings, so that by their final radio conversation the heartstrings Nair tugs so mightily aren't tied to much of anything. As Gene Vidal, Earhart's lover and colleague in promoting flight as a viable alternative to rail travel, Ewan McGregor is perfectly charming, but ultimately forgettable.
Nair and screenwriters Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan do take the time to hit on a few biographic points. A playful montage follows Earhart hawking countless products (from luggage to waffle irons) and hitting the lecture circuit to finance her flying. She's shown creating various groups, competitions and programs to empower female pilots. Her work with Vidal and as a spokesperson for the airline industry lays the foundations of America's air travel system. And, in a few throwaway moments, we're reminded of rumors that she was bisexual—a late-night flight over Washington, D.C. with Eleanor Roosevelt (a radiant Cherry Jones) as co-pilot generates an especially warm camaraderie that stands in sharp contrast to the constant pushing and pulling Earhart's male partners put her through.
Nair's not trying to rock the, um, plane, though, and snippets of Earhart's last flight interspersed throughout Amelia remind us that this journey is going exactly where it's supposed to go. Elegant costumes by Kasia Walicka-Maimone, lush production design by Stephanie Carroll and poised cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh ensure a trip that's as visually rich as period cinema is expected to be. The film's copious visual pleasures and excessive editing, however, can't conceal how essentially empty and weirdly alienating it feels. Amelia comes off less like an epic journey with a legendary long-distance aviatrix and more like a pleasant but ultimately routine commuter flight.
Opens October 23