The new biopic Amelia stars two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. Often remembered more for her mysterious disappearance than her aerial accomplishments, the new movie tries to steer focus back to her highly publicized, if short lived career as a professional female pilot. Only eight years after the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote, Earhart burst onto the public radar in 1928 by being the first women to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, becoming an instant celebrity. Just nine years later, on July 2, 1937 while attempting to circumnavigate the globe, her plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, giving birth to several theories and myths regarding her death.
Directed by Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) Amelia is a visual feast, as expected by a director that seems to delight in filming rich colors and textures—the only thing Vanity Fair had going for it was the exquisite Indian-influenced production design, while Monsoon Wedding, a personal favorite, burst with it’s saturated color choices. What impressed me the most was the aerial footage, vast and luscious and beautifully shot, they transported the audience and inviting us to experience the wonder and infatuation Earhart must have felt while in the cockpit.
Watching the film, you GET why Earhart risked her life and spent a fortune financing her voyages. At a time when women were barely able to work outside of the home, she was sailing through the sky (phenomenon that is viewed more as a tedious hassle by modern day travelers, than the improbable feat it actually is) and accomplishing feats that only a few men had successfully done before her.
While watching Earhart’s first trans-Atlantic trip, in what is essentially a garden shed made out of canvas with some wings added on, I suddenly understood how they could ultimately land in Wales instead of the intended Ireland, THEY HAD NO NAVIGATIONAL EQUIPMENT! And while some might argue that a sexton and compass counts (and maybe officially it does), when it’s cloudy and you’re flying over miles and miles of ocean, you basically just crossed your fingers and hoped for the best. No wonder dying while attempting to cross the Atlantic wasn’t THAT uncommon.
Today most of us won’t even drive to an unfamiliar part of town without first Google-mapping it or relying on Tom Tom, and that’s what Nair was really successful at, conveying the incredible danger and wonder that aviation actually was (and still is, not every modern-day pilot could successfully land a jetliner in the Hudson River so it’s not like air-travel isn’t still dangerous).
The splendidly aging Richard Gere is cast as Earhart’s publishing mogul husband and manager George Puttnam, the one responsible for marketing his future wife into a household name and her biggest supporter. While Gere and Swank exude a certain gentle, nurturing sweetness together, the pairing onscreen was devoid of sexual chemistry—at one point I was chanting to myself “please don’t turn into a sex scene, please don’t turn into a sex scene”. Ewan McGregor, who I’ve always loved in gritty, sexy roles also failed to thrill me as Gene Vidal, the aviator believed to have had an affair with Earhart.
Perhaps it’s Swank’s inherent wholesome quality, especially in this role, her open and earnest face practically screams “aww shucks.” At times it seemed as if Swank was simply stringing together Earhart quotes, which is a poor reflection on the script, more than a criticism on Swanks performance. Although the acting in Amelia is good and the story is certainly interesting and attention grabbing, it somehow didn’t jive. As critic Jay Stone puts it:
Whatever it was that made Amelia Earhart the darling of the skies back in the 1930s — her status as a woman flyer, her good looks, those cute outfits — eludes the makers of Amelia, a murky biography that hopscotches through the era like one of those sleek silver Electra planes that Amelia banged around in. That is, it looks good, but it is in danger of getting lost in the fog. Also, there’s a lot of turbulence. Also, it runs out of fuel.
Ultimately Amelia failed to emotionally engage me, with the exception of its depiction of Earhart’s journey over the Pacific Ocean. I loved the reconstruction of Earhart’s last radio transmissions to the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca— the frustration and mounting concern of the radio operators, as they were unable to locate Earhart’s plane and as communication with the craft proved spotty, was palpable.
Even with the inherent flaws in this biopic, any aviation buff (yes, being a mile-high club member does count) should check Amelia out, even if it’s only for the stunning aerial footage.