There have been enough bio-pics on Amelia Earhart that the only interest this one could hold would be in Mira Nair's presentation, or in any clarification of "The Mystery"—Earhart's disappearance during the last leg of her round-the-world flight. "Amelia" provides neither. It's is Nair's most conventional film, focussed on nailing the period details and the pictorial splendor of airborne sight-seeing. And as the particulars of the disappearance are so sketchy, the best the film can be do is merely suggestion (with a little obfuscation, but we'll get to that)*, "Amelia" comes off as a grandiose Lifetime movie—an "Aviatrix Flick"—that, while it occassionally gets off the ground, never really soars.
The problem is Amelia, herself. After many records and accomplishments (which the movie ticks off studiously), her story ends in silence and perceived failure, which unfairly casts a pall over the woman's storied existence. And Amelia was a taciturn presence, not unlike Lindbergh, projecting confidence by competence, her super-ego revealed only in her goals. Hilary Swank is a perfect choice to play her—thin as a rail but seeming corn-fed, horse-toothed with a helmet of straw—and she obviously did her research on Amelia's voice. But Earhart's newsreel performances are merely performances and Swank's Amelia has the same air of phoniness that Cate Blanchett's Katherine Hepburn had in that other aviator movie. Richard Gere as publisher George Putnam (and "Mr. Earhart") has the same vocal problem, affecting an accent that wavers up and down the East Coast. Faring better is Ewan McGregor as Gene Vidal (father of Gore), with whom Earhart worked with the government to establish air-routes and create the first commercial airlines; that the movie makes more hay of a speculated affair between Vidal and Earhart than that accomplishment is part of the film's weakness.
The buffeting lift and drag on this film may be attributable to two strong scriptwriters building on each other's work: Ronald Bass, who, if anything, tends to making his characters too likable, and Anna Hamilton Phelan, who doesn't (particularly in "Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey"). The two seem to clash on who Earhart "is," a symbol or human being, devoted to flying or feminism, faithful or philandering. Such "takes" on her character fly afoul of the issue that the film should have focussed on and never strayed from: the "true path" of seeking freedom. It's the one through-line of Earhart's life, from childhood (which the movie skimps in detailing) on. It is only in Earhart's narration (taken from her writings, no doubt heavily influenced by publisher husband Putnam) that emphasize a still clean sky with borderless landscapes below, a world without limits on the ground or in the sky, whichever your sex. That her life on the ground is forever hemmed in, trying to secure funds for that freedom, could have made a dramatic metaphor if the film-makers had bothered to notice.
But some of it's there. Enough to inspire if one wants to look beyond the ghost of the most celebrated "Missing Person" of the last century, and see what she accomplished while she still walked the Earth and conquered the sky.
"Amelia" is a Rental.
* Quibble section: Beyond her standing in front of a Patton-esque American flag backdrop that if one were to calculate beyond the frame would indicate fifty stars, and the montage of filmed endorsements that would be created for a medium yet to be invented—and they don't explain why she came in third in the 1929 "Women's Air Derby"—the details of the disappearance are fudged a bit. Her navigator for the round-the-world flight, Fred Noonan, is depicted as drinking before the fateful flight, which, though it might have happened earlier in the trip did not re-occur preceding that most precarious of hops to the tiny Howland Island landing strip. A recent PBS documentary on a re-creation of the fateful trip (right down to the aircraft used) seemed to hint that Earhart might have ignored Noonan's inclinations to fly south of Howland, where the pilot could have sighted one of two islands that might have accomodated a touch-down, and instead flew north, decreasing their chances with a dwindling fuel supply. But that is just one more theory in the dozens that have been posited in the years to explain the failure to accomplish what was, essentially, a risky maneuver even under the best of conditions.
Saturday, November 7, 2009