"Amelia" has magnificent period settings and airplanes and majestic aerial photography. It boasts the two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, perfectly cast as Amelia Earhart, with Richard Gere as Earhart's promoter-publisher husband, George Putnam. They even have nice on-screen chemistry.
But Mira Nair's big-screen Amelia is one thing the Earhart was not -- safe. It's sometimes moving and occasionally even thrilling and poetic. It never, however, truly takes flight.
The film focuses on the public-era Earhart and the romantic Earhart. We meet her as she's interviewing for the "job" of being the first woman passenger on a still-dangerous transatlantic flight. She was already a pilot in 1928 -- one of the cute liberties the film takes is making her "commander" of that three-person "Friendship" voyage, calling more shots about when they'd go than she probably did. It's still spine-tingling to see this ground-breaking woman "take charge," tempt fate, create her own destiny in an era when women didn't do that.
She was built for fame -- with Jazz Age flapper looks, a media-friendly manner and a name ready-made for the kind of celebrity that followed.
Nair frames the story within flashbacks, various stages of Amelia's final, fateful round-the-world flight. In less than two hours, Nair deals with that first blush of fame, then Amelia's solo Atlantic flight into legend, her alleged love affair with Gore Vidal's dad, Gene ( Ewan McGregor) and her rivalry with younger pilot Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska). The most thrilling scenes are Earhart's arrivals -- in Wales, where she was serenaded by stunned locals, in Ireland where a shepherd informs her she's missed Paris by a fair bit.
That compactness forced Nair to deal too literally with events and elements of Earhart's life and legend. Navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) talks openly about his drinking; Putman bluntly creates bad blood with Smith by ordering her to finish a race behind Amelia.
But Swank does wonders in capturing the essence of this woman so far ahead of her time. She has the right freckled, rawboned look, and she built on that to show a feisty, sexy and capable woman with a touch of the gambler about her.
"Only I can make a fulfilling life for myself," she says. "Don't let anyone turn you around."
Lindbergh's life earned its own solid-to-the-point-of-corny bio-pic 50 years ago, and it says something about how far Earhart was before her time that it took this long for her to earn similar treatment. For that reason, Amelia earns a pass, corny as it sometimes is. The lady earned her wings, and Swank, especially, more than does right by both the woman and the legend.