“Adequate” is the name of the game in Mira Nair’s (“Monsoon Wedding” “The Namesake”) biopic of the iconic American pilot Amelia Earhart. With other subjects, adequate may have been fine — but for this particular woman and vehicle, “adequate” just doesn’t pack enough firepower to get the film off the runway and soaring into space. (Puns totally intended.)
Earhart not only altered the course of American aviation history, she also laid the groundwork for feminism and women’s rights long before the notion got through to American society at large — and she did it all during the 1930s’ Great Depression, when the whole nation was feeling down in the dumps. Her story deserves more than an adequate effort — surely there’s enough romance, fantasy and mystery (she and her plane disappeared during a round-the-world flight in 1937) to ensure a glorious action pic, crammed to the gills with incident and adventure.
It’s hard to pinpoint what goes wrong in “Amelia.” The cast is way above reproach, with the title role played with conviction by two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank (whose resemblance to the real Earhart is so close it’s eerie). Her husband, publisher George Putnam, is played by a still-gorgeous Richard Gere, and the role of Amelia’s trusted navigator, Fred Noonan, goes to Christopher Eccleston. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh makes sure each frame is soaked in gorgeous, golden light — almost but not quite sepia-toned to accentuate the period. Director Nair constructs some memorable moments — the scene where Earhart lies in a wheat field looking up at the brilliant Kansas sky stretching to infinity above her is an eloquent testimonial to her passion for flying. Yet, the story makes no attempt to get beyond connecting-the-numbers banality: Nair seems content to play it safe, tell it straight and go home.
What seems to be missing is the filmmaker’s understanding of the love for motion, and Earhart’s unexplained, unquenchable thirst for covering distances just for the heck of it. In the movie Earhart says she wants to fly, and gives “Because it’s fun!” as the reason, but a big-budget biopic about the 20th century’s most famous aviatrix should not stoop to such obviousness. To her credit, Nair doesn’t lionize Earhart, but on the other hand it’s hard to get a sense of what made her a hero, and the driving force behind her passion to get into a plane and fly above the clouds. The film seems strangely sedentary when it could have been filled with movement, and the beautiful color scheme comes off as manicured rather than vibrant.
Saddest of all is the absence of Earhart’s perspective on the flying experience. Her very existence inspired millions of women to get out of their houses and move — physical motion became linked to technology, glamor and empowerment. After Amelia Earhart, more women drove their own cars, learned to navigate the roads, and equated movement with a sense of personal freedom. It’s not that women suddenly signed up in droves for flying classes (though a sizable number did), but they certainly became aware of the option to cut loose and take off. Nair glosses over all this as if it wasn’t very important, but from what we know of Earhart’s life, flying was the diamond embedded in her very soul.
What the film does concentrate on is what Nair has always done best — Earhart’s personal life, offset by marriage and an affair with Gene Vidal (novelist Gore Vidal’s dad), performed with lukewarm affection by Ewan McGregor. Unfortunately, these incidents don’t carry as much inspirational cache as Earhart’s career, though the story lingers inordinately on her relationship with Putnam (who forgave her infidelity, took her back and supported her flying obsession to the end). This is probably a compelling segment in any woman’s life, but hadn’t Earhart proved, through all her flying and record-setting, that there were far more important things? She was, literally, above all that.
Every so often, however, moments of aspiration do pop up — this is after all a story about the exhilaration of flying a huge piece of gleaming machinery into the sky, set in a time when America was struggling to renew its trust in the future during long, lean years of deprivation. In the end, Amelia Earhart was the tousel-haired, spunky girl icon who people loved to love — and even her disappearance somewhere over the Pacific ocean is tinged with hope, not tragedy. It’s definitely more gratifying to zoom in on that, and leave the other less interesting stuff to the Hollywood biopic archives.