Directed by: Mira Nair (Vanity Fair)
Starring: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Joe Anderson
If you took out the tepidly explored notions of an “open marriage” and the vaguest reference imaginable to possible bisexuality, Mira Nair’s Amelia could easily have been made in 1945. Even the depiction of Amelia Earhart’s (Hilary Swank) extra-marital affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) is handled so decorously that it seems little more than our heroine making a faux pas by using the wrong fork at a formal dinner. In short, this is a rather dull, totally unadventurous biopic. The question arises as to just why someone would want to make an unadventurous film about an adventurous woman? That question becomes even more perplexing when you realize that this was done by Mira Nair, who isn’t typically associated with dull movies.
Actually, Amelia isn’t as bad as the reviews would lead you to believe. There are, in fact, good things in it—not the least of which is Hilary Swank’s performance, and I am not one of Swank’s greatest fans. However, she holds the screen as Amelia Earhart. Her screen presence manages to suggest at least something of the charisma and complexity of the character in ways that the creaky screenplay never even hints at. It’s also a handsome film—with nice period detail and gorgeous cinematography. Unfortunately, this doesn’t alter the fact that there’s more corn in this one movie than is housed in the Corn Palace of Mitchell, S.D., and the Post Toasties factory combined.
This is the Amelia Earhart story for the high-school-textbook market—or, with a little luck, for the Classics Illustrated comic-book crowd. It’s all here—the dreams, the triumphs, the commercialization of Earhart, the final ill-fated attempt at a flight around the world in 1937—and it’s all here in an old-fashioned “ripped from the headlines” manner. And that’s the problem. It’s the stripped-to-the-headlines version of her life—complete with scratchy newsreel footage. Almost 100 percent of the time you get the story you already know. The film’s idea of fleshing out the public persona is perhaps best illustrated by her being forced to endorse Lucky Strike cigarettes and to say they had been along on her first Transatlantic flight, despite the fact that she didn’t smoke. And the film’s not even truthful about the extent of the requisite lie, as is obvious to anyone who’s seen the advertisement in question—which has her claiming they were smoked “nonstop” on the flight.
Aspects of the film are close to risible in their clichéd nature. The whole affair with Gene Vidal threatens to become funny, with all its cutaways to worried looks from her husband, G.P. Putnam (Richard Gere), whenever Gene is in the area. Considering that Vidal’s role is so perfunctory that a cardboard cut-out of Ewan McGregor would have probably sufficed, it’s even sillier—and, frankly, seems more concerned with beating you over the head with the fact that she knew young Gore Vidal (William Cuddy). Taking Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones, looking nothing like Mrs. R. despite a set of oversized choppers) for a nighttime plane ride is just another name-dropping doo-dad that has little to do with the film as it’s presented.
OK, Amelia is watchable. Swank is good. Gere is all right. Most of the cast is wasted. It took 40-odd years for biopics to get as silly as Charles Vidor’s A Song to Remember in 1945. It took another 20 years for them to recover. In one fell swoop, Mira Nair and company have set the genre back 64 years. That’s probably some kind of accomplishment. Rated PG for some sensuality, language, thematic elements and smoking.