History can weigh heavily on a filmmaker, and that is what happens with “Amelia,” a disappointing rendering of the remarkable life of Amelia Earhart. The pioneering aviatrix lost in flight is a figure so iconic, and director Mira Nair so tentative with her legend, that all the reverence and tiptoeing around grounds a film that should have soared.
The life of Earhart, who burst on the scene in 1928 flying airplanes when they were still the province of men, is exactly the sort of saga Nair loves to tell. Themes of the unconventional woman have long found their way into her work, whether powerfully as in “Monsoon Wedding” or lightly in “Vanity Fair.”
So a pioneering feminist in the hands of a feminist filmmaker should have been a perfect match. But like her subject, the filmmaker gets lost in the clouds.
The film begins with the nose of the Electra lifting upward as Earhart -- played by Earhart lookalike Hilary Swank -- sets out on that tragic solo flight of 1937. We see the world as she must have from the cockpit that day, with the land a patchwork of greens and browns spreading out below, the sky endlessly blue, those sweeping vistas giving us a sense of the freedom that fueled Earhart’s passion for flying.
There is also the hint of trouble in the air, but for the moment, Nair leaves that hanging and takes us back to fill in a few of the blanks of Earhart’s life. The country girl who first fell in love with the yellow biplane that swooped over the Kansas fields of her childhood; the woman of quiet determination, who would defy the naysayers and go on to charm the world with her record-breaking flights.
Swank, with hair cropped short tucked under the leather flyboy cap and those long lanky limbs, looks the essence of Amelia as she crouches on the wing of a plane, hand aloft in a wave, a smile playing across that strong-boned face. The physical resemblance between the two is striking, enough so that Nair can make good use of newsreel footage from that time.
The film narrows its sights to the decade when Earhart captivated the nation, from her first flight across the Atlantic in 1928 until she disappeared in the Pacific in 1937 during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Many of the historic details land on the screen in the form of newspaper headlines and newsreel shorts, a device instead of plot and dialogue, which only serves to underscore the weakness of the script by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan.
Most of Amelia’s interior life we get through passages lifted from her diary, with Swank narrating the many minutes the film devotes to tracing Earhart’s travels. The meat of the story begins with her groundbreaking flight over the Atlantic to the shores of Ireland, which Amelia made first as a passenger, then as a pilot. We get a taste of her unaffected appeal as she chats with the surprised Irish farmer, his sheep clustered artfully nearby. But those glimpses of Amelia’s humanity come from such an emotional distance that the substance of this substantial woman is lost.
For all that Earhart accomplished alone, much of her life was defined by the men who loved her.
First in line was George Putnam, a slick promotional genius played by a stylishly smooth Richard Gere. Putnam understood the power of managing an image, and in his own way was as daring and inventive as Amelia. They would marry, although Earhart wasn’t keen on the idea, stopping the ceremony until the minister removed the word “obey” from the vows.
The passion came with Gene Vidal (yes, Gore’s father), played by a debonair but underused Ewan McGregor, an aviation pioneer and a pilot himself, who understood her love of flying and feared her ambition. Though they were both married, the couple would carry on a brief but intense affair that we see little of beyond a relatively chaste kiss in an elevator. More often than not we see Amelia, Putnam and Vidal talking strategy and risks as her career advanced, with a young Gore running around in the background. No detail is too small, too random or too pointless to throw into this already unfocused film.
The sinewy strength and controlled aggression that Swank used to such good effect for her Oscar-winning roles in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby” is mostly diminished in “Amelia” by a poster-girl smile. So ever-present is that grin, whether in the cockpit, or a cocktail party or on the promotional circuit for everything from luggage to clothes that you worry it has forever lined Swank’s face.
But we get little of the woman behind the smile. Where is the steely force that drives grand ambition, the fears, the flaws?
The final flight and the final hours when she realizes her fate are the stuff of great drama, but you won’t find it here. Mostly we see Amelia in flight, touching down around the world like a History Channel travelogue, or seeing small slices of her life unfold like a fashion spread, gorgeous but vacuous -- not exactly the legacy Earhart hoped for or deserves.
MPAA rating: PG for some sensuality, language, thematic elements and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In general release