Movies about pioneers of flight have a propensity to crash. Martin Scorsese ran roughshod over Howard Hughes's directing credits in the breezy The Aviator and now Mira Nair's attempt at the exciting story of Amelia Earhart - though it is high on glossy costumes - never really gets off the ground. Hilary Swank plays the aviatrix who disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while attempting a record-breaking around-the-world voyage in 1937. On paper, Earhart's life reads like a boy's tale. She was a pioneering woman who refused to be constrained by traditional gender roles. She married her publicist, George Putnam, and had an affair with Gene Vidal (the father of Gore), who at the time was the director of the Bureau of Air Commerce. Earhart was a star in a very modern sense; she used her celebrity to promote products and made as much money from endorsements as she did as an aviator.
In short, she lived her life in the fast lane, with all the ingredients for what should be an exciting movie. Amelia begins with Earhart mid-air at the start of her fateful journey. The story of her life unfolds in a series of disjointed flashbacks, which turn the epic into a bumpy ride for both the character and the audience. Nothing is added to what we can already gather about Earhart from a quick internet search; the movie delivers a checklist of events rather than anything juicy.
The problems with Nair's biopic begin with the flight scenes. In The Aviator, Scorsese went to great lengths to show how Hughes struggled as a filmmaker to translate the thrill of flying onto celluloid. In the end, Hughes achieved this feat by using clouds as a marker for speed. Nair includes the clouds but none of the thrills. These have to be some of the least exhilarating flight scenes ever committed to film, as Swank looks as if she has been put in a box in a studio and told to imagine that she is up in the air.
The fact that Top Gun was the last film that made flying seem exciting is an indicator of how difficult flight is to capture on screen, as well as how the aviation industry has lost its glamour in an age of no-frills airlines. Swank, as the photos in the end credits demonstrate, is a doppelganger for Earhart, yet one hopes that in real life the aviator was a bit more charismatic and less long-winded. The film is based on two books, Susan Butler's East to the Dawn and Mary S Lovell's The Sound of Wings, and the scriptwriters seem to try to make up for the confusing, non-linear story by including too much pointless exposition. It fails to give the tale any thrust - and this is particularly problematic as most of the audience will already know that Earhart doesn't reach her destination.
Richard Gere gives a polished performance as Putnam. He is debonair and delivers romantic lines with a gusto that disregards their corniness. Gere plays a character who has to stand aside as younger men woo his girl. That job falls to Ewan McGregor's Gene Vidal, but once again the Scottish actor falls flat with his American accent. Nair, who directed the excellent Monsoon Wedding, never seems in command of her subject. In this film, she moves into the action arena for the first time, and it seems her strengths as a director lie in character-driven stories. There are too many moments that seem thrown into the mix (such as a contest with fellow female pilots) and do little to further the story or offer insight into Earhart's mindset.
Another side story that doesn't work is Earhart's battle to keep her alcoholic co-pilot, Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), in check. He is supposed to navigate their landings and she needs to keep him sober. Nair suggests that he may not have been in best shape when they crashed. But the director's failure to make a final call on the matter is another dramatic failing. Only vintage fashion lovers will be able to find something positive about Amelia. The costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone has done an excellent job mixing flying uniforms with flowery kimonos. Nonetheless, the period details can do nothing to save this script from dying a death that is perhaps just as spectacular as Earhart's.
Updated: January 14, 2010 04:00 AM