Just over 72 years ago, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while flying the last leg of Earhart’s flight around the world, which “ if it had been successful “ was to mark her retirement from aviation.
“Amelia” is a hodgepodge of semi-interesting moments in Earhart’s life interspersed with short episodes from her final flight. It’s not really a biopic per se, with a linear progression of events from childhood to death, but instead, director Mira Nair (“The Namesake“) tries to humanize a person who has remained, like the circumstances of her death, largely a mystery.
Nair tries to accomplish this through Earhart’s romantic life, her role in the creation of the aviation industry, and as a sort of proto-feminist, portraying her as the missing link between Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem. Unfortunately, the result only creates a soft-focus view of events that seem like they should have significance, but ultimately don’t.
Our acquaintanceship with Amelia (Hilary Swank, “P.S. I Love You“) begins when she meets George Putnam (Richard Gere, “Nights in Rodanthe“), of the publishing Putnams. Because he was partially responsible for creating a cash machine out of Charles Lindbergh after his 1927 solo transatlantic flight, he is given the mission of finding a woman to make the same flight, for which he chooses Earhart.
FROM THE BEGINNING
He makes it clear from the beginning she’ll be just a pretty face riding across the ocean in an airplane piloted by men, although her official title will be “commander,” and the press will be told she did all the work by her lonesome. Earhart isn’t happy about it, but figures she can parlay some real flight time out of the publicity down the road.
Saddled with a drunk and a wimp for a pilot and navigator, Earhart “commands” her crew across the Atlantic and instantly becomes a celebrity. She begins flying in whatever events she can, speaking out in favor of women pilots and advocating for women in general. In the meantime, she begins what she considers an open relationship with Putnam.
By contrast, he wants to keep Amelia to himself. He is especially un-thrilled when she befriends and begins working with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor, “Angels & Demons“), father of future author and occasional actor Gore Vidal (portrayed as a child by newcomer William Cuddy). Putnam is even less thrilled when he finds out that Vidal and Earhart are doing more than talking about aviation.
Somewhere in there, Earhart does actually fly across the Atlantic on her own, and in record time. She keeps doing speaking tours and shilling for luggage, clothes and other commercial goods, trying to raise enough money to buy and modify a plane good enough to fly all the way around the world.
After several false starts, including crashing during takeoff on a runway in Hawaii and having to start all over, she finally gets her wish and flies off into 20th-century mythology.
“Amelia” is technically a fine film. It has great casting, production value and serviceable pacing. The problem is that Earhart herself isn’t really that interesting. Sad as it is to say, the most interesting thing about her is that we don’t know exactly how she died. Sure, being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic is impressive, but there are plenty of aviation record holders most people today have never heard of.
For example, do you know who Charles Kingsford Smith was? He was the first person to fly around the world, period. But he didn’t disappear without a trace while doing it, so no one’s making any movies about him.
Nair does try very hard to make Earhart’s life historically relevant. There’s a nice scene in which Amelia lets Eleanor Roosevelt fly her plane, and the relationship between Amelia and young Gore Vidal is touching, if brief. On the other hand, there are no appearances by Lindbergh, Roosevelt or any of the many other historical figures she must have known.
Even her romantic entanglements feel hollow and incomplete. There’s no great drama in her relationship with Putnam, or even in her affair with Vidal. There’s a very pragmatic feeling to the whole thing, as if Earhart is simply trying to prove to Putnam that she’ll do what she pleases, even if she’s barely interested in doing it.
Or maybe Nair is trying to elevate Earhart’s feminist credentials by implying that she probably did whatever she wanted.
Either way, who really cares?”Mike Robertson