Most people know that Amelia Earhart flew airplanes back when women rarely did. And when she disappeared over the Pacific while piloting one, she left behind the romantic image of a smiling, vibrant gal, her scarf snapping jauntily in the breeze, forever departing on some grand aeronautic adventure.
Truthfully, there's not much more to take away from Mira Nair's glossy, mild-mannered bio-pic of Earhart, except that it takes two hours to unfold.
Amelia stars Hilary Swank as the titular aviatrix, and scores early points for a physical similarity between the two women. But any hopes for a probing or even intriguing depiction of what life was like for this pioneer of the skies and the male-dominated world she inhabited are quickly subsumed in Nair's curiously old-fashioned romantic drama.
Nair splits the narrative, hopping from Earhart's final flight in 1937 -- her quest to circumnavigate the globe -- to the decade's worth of flying and romancing that preceded it. Central to the flashback narrative is George Putnam (Richard Gere), the publisher and publicist who later became Mr. Earhart. So, as Earhart conquers the skies -- and the adoring public -- we check in with the good parts of her 1937 trip: snapshots of exotic locales and wistful aerial shots of her Lockheed Electra gleaming in the moonlight.
Amelia is reminiscent of toothless bio-films from the Hollywood studio era, where everything and everyone shone, characters held little nuance and the story rushed forward to the swelling of violins. Nair even borrows the dusty technique of using cloud banks and various mists to transition between the present narrative and the past.
The costume designer must have had a grand time -- the clothes are fabulous, from satin bias-cut evening gowns and sporty slacks to a head-to-toe leather flightsuit that drew appreciative gasps from the audience. (That said, all the togs are just more sheen that detracts from the grit of history.)
Perhaps Nair's intention was to make a bio-pic in the manner of the old masters, but today's audiences aren't likely to be swept up by lots of dreamy satins and folksy bromides.
Because the chief problem with Amelia is that we never feel anything in a story that should be vicariously thrilling. We should be scared when Earhart takes to the air in what looks like a glorified tin can, and emboldened by the strides she makes as a "modern" woman, whether in the air or in her bedroom. Yet it's all so tame.
Take the depiction of Earhart's solo flight across the Atlantic. It was a feat unaccomplished since Lindbergh's historic flight, and 14 other pilots had died trying. In the cockpit, Swank attractively grimaces through trials that appear and resolve in mere seconds: a CGI lightning storm; a precipitous descent caused by ice on the wings; fatigue; the sun shining in her eyes. Then, the clouds miraculously part and there's cheery old Ireland, complete with droll shepherd.
This sequence should have been fraught, making us both question and support Earhart's risky decision, and sigh with relief. Instead, I felt I was watching a two-minute skit about the perils of vintage aviation.
It can be tricky to pin down near-mythical historical figures such as Earhart, and Nair's mistake may have been an excess of polite reserve. Nobody wants to see Amelia Earhart retroactively grounded by feet of clay, but Nair doesn't even give this interesting woman legs.