Back in 1965, Ron Goodwin’s title song from “The Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” said of the early aviators that “they go up tiddly-up-up, they go down tiddly-down-down.” Mira Nair’s biographical tale of the aviatrix who sealed her fame by doing a Judge Crater and disappearing on a flight across the Pacific in 1937 follows only half the pattern. “Amelia” never takes flight, but it certainly crashes.
Hilary Swank, all gussied up in period hairstyle and clothes, is nonetheless never convincing as Earhart, whose life is traced from her first meeting with George Putnam (Richard Gere), the publisher/promoter who also became her devoted husband, in 1928, when, already an eager and ambitious pilot, she applied to become the first female to fly across the Atlantic—though, as it turned out, as a passenger alongside a male pilot and navigator (Joe Anderson and Aaron Abrams). As the film tells it, however, she became the driving force behind the exploit, pushing the men onward when they would have given up, and the ultimate success of the journey made her an immediate celebrity as “Lady Lindy,” which George promptly employed to make big profits in books and commercial endorsements.
But for Amelia flying was the great thrill, and now she was in a position to undertake record-shattering exploits truly on her own, fulfilling the wide-eyed dreams she had, as a few flashbacks show us, as a young girl back in Kansas. With the financial backing secured by Putnam, she goes on to cross the Atlantic solo. And she uses her popularity to encourage other female pilots, most notably young Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska)—a sort of simplistic proto-feminism is one of the themes built into the script—and even to help get federal government backing for a civil aeronautics board by, among other things, lobbying a star-struck Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones).
She also secures the top post in the bureau for West Point aeronautics instructor Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), with whom she develops a friendship so close that it irritates Putnam. That’s another thread in the story—what amounts to a romantic triangle. But as played here, it’s a romantic triangle without any heat. Swank’s brittle Earhart, more an imitation than a truly developed character, never develops any chemistry with either Gere’s Putnam, whom the actor portrays with an assortment of his usual prissy mannerisms but gives little inner life, or McGregor’s Gene, who never becomes anything more than a sort of well-dressed male model. Even the romance between Amelia and George is given short shrift; they move from a professional relationship to a wedding with startling swiftness (and a feminist joke). In fact, the only personal relationship in the picture that seems at all deep is the one Amelia shares with Gene’s little son Gore (William Cuddy), who becomes in effect her occasional pet (the implication being that he brings out her otherwise unfulfilled maternal side).
But human considerations take a back seat to Earhart’s flying ambitions anyway, and the film necessarily leads up to her final exploit, the disastrous attempt to achieve an around-the-world flight that ended somewhere in the South Pacific. The film actually starts with that episode and returns to it periodically throughout, devoting the last reel to her difficulties with navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) on the earlier stages of the journey and the final messages she exchanged (or couldn’t exchange, given the radio problems) with US Navy personnel trying desperately to help her find the small island on which she could refuel. Happily the script dispenses with all the far-out theories that have been proposed about the plane’s disappearance, but it also plays out the episode rather flatly, not sensationalizing it but failing to give it much urgency either.
And ultimately that’s the fundamental problem with “Amelia.” It looks gorgeous. The period ambience created by production designer Stephanie Carroll, art decorator Nigel Churcher, set decorator Gordon Sim and costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone is impressive, and the aerial footage is, if not breathtaking, lovely to look at. And Stuart Dryburgh’s widescreen photography gives the images throughout a burnished glow. Beneath the beautiful surface, however, there’s no heart. (The Depression-era context, as one example, is virtually ignored except for one brief moment when Earhart’s car passes by men standing in a soup line and she remarks about it.)
Much of the problem lies with the cast, who overall seem more like waxworks figures than real people. But of course it must also be laid at the feet of director Nair, who’s made a film that comes off more like a museum exhibit than a vital drama. “Amelia” feels like a picture that might have been made in the forties, with its staid tone, stilted dialogue and determinedly inoffensive, even panegyric biographical approach. Everything that happens in it may well be factually based, but as realized here none of it seems truly authentic.
One of the Kansas phrases that Earhart liked to use, the script tells us, was “That’s hooey.” Unfortunately, in this case a subject that might have generated an enlightening examination of the American character has instead been manipulated into a movie that feels very close to TV-style docudrama—the epitome of hooey.