In an ironic twist, Mira Nair’s big-hearted yet by-the-numbers biopic of Amelia Earhart never — unlike the famous aviatrix — takes chances.
The film, which stars Hilary Swank as the groundbreaking pilot who disappeared while attempting to become the first woman to fly around the world, is doggedly earnest in that vaguely annoying Oscar-hopeful way, with stunning cinematography of the expansive views from the seat of Earhart’s Electra and all the soaring strings you can bear. But its portrayal of Earhart’s drive and fearlessness never really gets to the heart of this bold, driven individual or explains why she needed so badly to break beyond Earth’s boundaries.
The good news, though, is that Swank — who earned Best Actress Oscars for her work in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby — is still strangely mesmerizing as Earhart, even if we never truly get under her character’s skin. Swank is prettier, of course, but her resemblance to Earhart is uncanny, and she’s compelling despite being forced to utter such awkward lines as “I want to be free to be a vagabond of the air.”
The film follows Earhart’s life from her first transatlantic flight (as a passenger) to her final journey (she took off from Opa-locka Airport in June of 1937). We get only snippets of her childhood, a decision that is is good and bad: No belabored traumas shape young Amelia’s character, but we’re thrown too abruptly into the story, which opens with Earhart’s meeting publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere) in hopes of financing a flight (she also eventually marries him). Nair, who directed the gorgeous The Namesake — a far more evocative study of human bonds and behavior — may have figured no lengthy introduction was necessary, since the audience is most likely well versed in Earhart’s history.
Gere plays Putnam as something of a hustler with class, but he’s also gently vulnerable, especially in light of evidence of his wife’s affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), father of Gore. This geezer Gere is surprisingly appealing; his Putnam is a relentless public-relations machine, but he’s also emotionally invested in Earhart’s need to fly, no matter how much he worries when she’s gone. McGregor, on the other hand, still hasn’t shaken off the stiffness bestowed on him by the Dark Lord (George Lucas).
The film doesn’t so much build dramatically as glide steadily toward that fateful final flight, when Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) staked their lives on being able to find tiny Howland Island in the middle of the Pacific so they could refuel. We know the story’s end, of course: No trace was ever found of the plane or its pilot and passenger. What we wish, though, is that Amelia had delved deeper into this remarkable woman’s beginnings.
Cast: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Joe Anderson.
Director: Mira Nair.
Screenwriters: Ronald Bass, Anna Hamilton Phelan. Based on the books “East to the Dawn” by Susan Butler and “The Sound of Wings” by Mary S. Lovell.
Producers: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Kevin Hyman, Ted Waitt.A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 111 minutes. Some sensuality, language, thematic elements, smoking. Playing at area theaters.