“No borders, just horizons,” enthuses aviator Amelia Earhart in the new biopic Amelia. “Who wants a life imprisoned in safety?”
And yet this film, coming 72 years after Earhart vanished, plays it awfully safe.
Under Mira Nair’s direction, Amelia is respectable and respectful, with a solid performance from two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank.
It’s also bland, never going out on a narrative or stylistic limb and finally settling into an unremarkable by-the-numbers, made-for-TV approach.
Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan’s screenplay employs as a framing device Amelia (Swank) and navigator Fred Noonan’s (Christopher Eccleston) ill-fated 1937 attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The story unfolds in flashbacks as Amelia flies over deserts, seas and mountains.
Her childhood in Atchison, Kan., is dispensed with in about 20 seconds of celluloid; then we see the adult Amelia slowly working her way into the flying business and the consciousness of the American public.
The basic big events of her life are here, like her solo flight across the Atlantic that made her the first person to duplicate Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 feat.
She marries book publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), who manages her career so effectively (some would say exploitatively) that by the time of her disappearance she is doing ads for cigarettes though she doesn’t smoke and has her own fashion and luggage lines. Quite daring for the times, the couple enjoy what today might be called an “open” relationship.
She has an affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), an aviation bigwig in Roosevelt’s administration (he was the father of future writer Gore Vidal), but eventually returns to her husband.
Through it all she tirelessly promotes the role of women in aviation and, indirectly, notions of female independence and achievement. In an era when girls didn’t have all that many role models, Earhart enjoyed the sort of devotion today reserved for teen pop stars.
But the big questions that dog the legend are glossed over here. The film doesn’t address allegations that the boyish Earhart was a lesbian (or bisexual); the closest it comes is her offhand comment about a woman’s nice legs and an assertion to Putnam that she’s “not the marrying kind.”
And it doesn’t even mention the many rumors about Earhart’s fate: Did she crash on a Japanese-controlled island? Did she die in one of their prisons? The crew of a Coast Guard ship loses radio contact with the pilot in the middle of the Pacific. That’s it.
Amelia is always competent (although I initially found Gere’s Putnam half patrician, half huckster to be rocky going), but it never really soars, either.
With her horsey mouth and boyish ‘do, Swank perfectly captures Earhart’s physical side though her speaking voice has less of Kansas than Katharine Hepburn. You get a sense of the woman’s determination and bravery and her willingness to pull rank when the men around her are feeling churlish. But it’s not what you’d call a knockout performance.
Technically the film is unremarkable, though there’s some pleasure to be had in the era’s primitive machines (cars and planes) and those classic ’30s fashions.
2 1/2 stars
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor
Rated: PG for some sensuality, language, thematic elements and smoking
Running time: 1:41
Robert Butler writes for the Kansas City Star. McClatchy-Tribune News Service.