Amelia (Fox Searchlight Pictures) the biopic is many things that Amelia Earhart the pilot never was: decorous, conventional, sanitized, dull. Directed by Mira Nair and executive-produced by its star Hilary Swank, the movie seems oddly preoccupied with the audience’s approval for its subject. It’s not enough that Earhart was a pioneering aviator, the first woman (and the second person) to successfully cross the Atlantic solo, and that she vanished mysteriously during an attempt to be the first person to circumnavigate the equator. We can’t really care about the life of Amelia Earhart, this movie believes, unless she’s beautiful, sweet, stylishly dressed, madly in love with her husband, and 99.9 percent heterosexual.
That soft-pedaling is a shame, in particular, because Earhart is being played by an actress who’s at her best when she’s none of these things. Despite her two Oscars and impressive technical chops, Swank has never managed to become an actor that audiences connect to as America’s sweetheart. We like her bruised, driven, obsessed, a little angry, like the cross-dressing heroine of Boys Don’t Cryor the pugilistic monomaniac of Million Dollar Baby. And by all accounts, Amelia Earhart was just such an obsessive sort. In this New Yorker piece on Earhart, Judith Thurman describes an ambitious and canny self-marketer who willingly collaborated with her agent and husband George Putnam in crafting her public image. But perhaps for fear that Earhart’s likability will be diminished if she’s seen enjoying, much less seeking, fame, Nair and her screenwriters are careful to demonstrate that this Amelia shrinks from the speaking gigs and luggage endorsements that help fund her global expeditions.
Richard Gere, in roguish Billy Flynn mode, plays Putnam, the publishing mogul and proto-PR agent who proposed to Earhart six times before she finally said yes. Putnam and Earhart’s union was an unusual, even radically modern one—on the day of their wedding, she gave him a letter that read in part, “I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly”—but Nair’s film goes to great lengths to bathe George and Amelia’s marriage in a rosy light. After she cheats on her husband with aviation pioneer Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor, taking his usual glazed inertia to new heights), Amelia must be shown breaking off the affair and weeping with regret—in real life, it’s not clear that she and Vidal ever stopped seeing each other. As for the rumors about Earhart’s lesbianism, they’re addressed only in two oblique scenes, one where, sitting in a bar with Vidal, she admires a woman’s legs, and another where she turns down Putnam’s proposal with “I’m not the marrying kind.” There’s no need to throw in wild speculation about Earhart’s imagined Sapphic grapplings, but if the subtext is going to remain that submerged, why let it peek out at all?
If you can get past Amelia’s maddening devotion to niceness, the movie does boast a few soaring set pieces. Though it takes place in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Amelia is full of cinematic tricks from the ‘80s: mock black-and-white newsreels that morph into full-color scenes and a swooping romantic score by Gabriel Yared that, especially when it accompanies Stuart Dryburgh’s camera upward through banks of clouds, recalls the flight scenes in Out of Africa. A little more aviation wonkery would have been welcome: If Earhart and Vidal’s affair really was sparked by their joint love of flying, shouldn’t their pillow talk have involved aerial refueling and wind shear? But the flight scenes are engaging enough that by the time Amelia leaves on her final round-the-world trip with the alcoholic navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), we’re invested enough to root for them despite the foregone conclusion of their awful end.
The tense final scenes posit a theory about what happened to Earhart over the Pacific that’s in line with the conclusion reached by most of her biographers: a combination of chance mishaps and faulty communications between Earhart and a Coast Guard ship stationed belowresulted in her plane running out of fuel before she could locate the tiny landing strip built for her on Howland Island. The audience is spared from witnessing the actual impact, but watching the series of decisions and missteps that led up to it, you realize what a stubborn, ambitious, amazing person the real Amelia Earhart must have been to attempt this flight. It’s enough to make you wish someone would make a movie about her.