If I were Annette Bening, I would send Hillary Swank anonymous hate mail. Twice Bening has been thought of as front runner for the Oscar for Best Actress (AMERICAN BEAUTY, BEING JULIA) and twice Ms. Swank has given the acceptance speech (BOYS DON’T CRY, MILLION DOLLAR BABY). The Academy likes her in those tragic roles, and her new role as Amelia Earhart in Mira Nair’s AMELIA, given that we all know the gist of how the story ends, looked to be another role along those lines. However, Nair plays the story more as a woman’s love of the freedom of flight, at times to a cheesy degree, and does not hit enough of the more interesting parts of Earhart’s personal life to truly draw the audience into the film. And though it does have some compelling moments, it more often than not becomes more of a recitation of facts about her life than letting Swank use her considerable acting chops to dig into the parts of Amelia we don’t read in history books.
Only momentary glimpses are given into Earhart’s life as a child, the first being early as she speaks – in an odd voice-over that is off-putting throughout – of how she became enamored with flight. The rest focuses on her climb to prominence under the public relations prowess of her future husband, George P. Putnam (Richard Gere). She begins her celebrity as a passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight, getting credit (and an old fashioned ticker tape parade) as commander of said flight. G.P. Putnam falls for her quickly, with little courtship or explanation, and a litany of Earhart’s flying feats are covered mostly in newsreels. As she becomes toast of the town, she meets Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) fellow aviator and future commercial aviation industry captain and father of writer Gore Vidal. G.P., mostly out of jealousy, proposes marriage, but even in her vows, Amelia basically says she wants an open marriage, and makes a point to omit the “obey” portion of the wedding. Amelia then does her famous solo trans-Atlantic flight, then more solo flights and is all the while talking up women in aviation, making an impression on first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she took a flight, playfully recreated by Nair, over Washington, D.C.
The main conflict comes between Amelia choosing between her husband, G.P., or the dashing Gene Vidal, but Amelia’s anxiety of the choice is never really explored. Furthermore, the interactions between the three of them aren’t as tense or as explosive as one would imagine they could have been, especially given G.P.’s love for Amelia. Instead it made Amelia look more like a swinger, and a possibly interesting conflict goes unused. What works as another possible argument that could have been explored more is the disagreement between Vidal and Putnam as to Amelia’s decision to fly around the globe; only touched on, but never truly fleshed out.
Despite shortcomings, AMELIA does do some things well, especially conveying to the viewer the difficulties of flight in the early days of aviation. These difficulties are especially hit on early with Amelia’s first trans-Atlantic flight and later with her solo flight. However, also at the beginning, much of the dialog seems awkward and forced by Swank and Gere’s accents and their delivery, but as we ease into the story the words flow better. And while only slightly touching on Earhart’s relevance to the furtherance of women in aviation, Nair decides to emphasize more the freedom of flight, as Swank waxes poetic in voice-over too much. Gere does well as the doting, supportive husband, especially towards the end, and Amelia’s last radio transmissions from her global flight supply the tension you’d imagine most would feel in that situation. But still, despite playing this inspirational character met with a tragic and suspicious end, this will not supply Swank with her third statuette. Also, the film as a whole doesn’t supply the audience with as much meat as it could have. Disappointing considering a character that to this day still has young women looking skyward in wonder and possibility.