(by Dustin Putman
Were "Amelia" a tad bit stronger as a whole, Hilary Swank (2007's "P.S. I Love You") would be a major contender to pick up her third Academy Award, following 1999's "Boys Don't Cry" and 2004's "Million Dollar Baby." As it is, a nomination is virtually in the bag for the versatile actress, whose portrayal of famed aviator Amelia Earhart is pretty faultless, filled with spirit and light. For a biopic that has been based on two scrupulously researched books, Susan Butler's "East to the Dawn" and Mary S. Lovell's "The Sound of Wings," the film itself is surprisingly spotty, offering not a heck of a lot of insight into who Earhart was that won't already be known by the majority of prospective viewers. As directed by Mira Nair (2004's "Vanity Fair") and scripted by Ron Bass (1999's "Snow Falling on Cedars") and Anna Hamilton Phelan (1999's "Girl, Interrupted"), "Amelia" overly glorifies its human subject, cautious to get its hands dirty and dig beneath the surface of Earhart's public life. And yet, even so, Swank is a joy to watch. Article continues below
Ever since the first time she spotted a plane flying overhead on the Kansas prairie where she grew up, Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank) has known exactly what she wants to do with her life. As an adult, she is commissioned by publishing tycoon and eventual husband George Putnam (Richard Gere) to write a book on her flying adventures. This, mixed with her increased notoriety as the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic—a woman who ultimately wants to become the first to successfully complete a journey around the world—would make Amelia famous. What would make her a legend, however, is what would ultimately happen on that daring flight in July 1937.
"Amelia" begins and ends with Earhart's final fateful mission alongside trusted crew member Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), the film jumping back and forth in time between the otherwise chronological telling of the last ten years of her life. Save for a single vague mention of her mother and father, Amelia's parents—not to mention the rest of her family—are never heard from, while a wordless shot of herself as a kid is all we ever glimpse of her childhood. The next time the viewer meets her, she is thirty years old and already a pilot with nary a word afforded to how she has gotten to this moment in time. Meanwhile, though the picture is structurally sound, the editing is at times very careless, with the 1929 National Air Race happening moments after it is established that it is 1931. Virginia Madsen also reportedly filmed a major role as Dorothy Binney, Putnam's first wife, but there is no sign of the actress or the character in the final cut.
If the film has its faults and shortcomings—the narrative really does play like idealized Cliffs Notes—what there is to it is nonetheless captivating. Amelia's troubled but steadfast relationship with George Putnam, including her unlikely marriage to him ("Only I can make a fulfilling life for myself," she tells him before agreeing to tie the knot), is depicted affectionately and without fuss. So is her brief, passionate affair with suave Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, meaning only as much as it needs to without losing sight of the bigger picture. Earhart's thoughtful, even literary, musings about the earth and what it means to be one with the clouds and sky are also affecting, the cinematography by Gabriel Yared (2007's "1408") helping to make the lightning, the sunlight and all the aerial views from above look absolutely heavenly. A scene where Earhart takes First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones) for a late-night flight over D.C. is resplendent, the kind of event that sounds fictional until you learn that it really happened.
As the two men in her life, Richard Gere (2008's "Nights in Rodanthe") and Ewan McGregor (2009's "Angels & Demons") give expectedly proficient readings of, respectively, George Putnam and Gene Vidal. In the critical last few scenes between Amelia and George, the love between them is cemented and just what they saw in each other, despite their differences, comes into focus. In different circumstances, Amelia's fling with Gene might have turned into something just as powerful, but it is not to be. Fine though Gere and McGregor are, this isn't their film. As the spunky, indomitable Amelia Earhart, Hilary Swank is the rightful main attraction, and she owns the screen for every moment she's on it. A more thorough screenplay would have explored this historical figure with greater depth, but Swank still manages to give complexity to the role.
While the definitive epic cinematic biography of Amelia Earhart has yet to be made, "Amelia" will have to do in the meantime. It is a glossy production, to be sure, but a respectful and handsome one. The third act, chronicling the final days and minutes of Earhart's life before her plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, never to be found, is given the most attention. Free of any conspiracy theories or the like, the climax envelops with dread as Earhart flies helplessly toward a destiny she no longer has control over. Snapshots and vintage footage of the real-life female aviator are a nice, if inevitable, touch to the ending, for once allowed to play out without being mucked up by the usual credits scrolling overtop or beside them. Amelia's time on the planet may have been cut short, but she lived it on her own terms, precisely as she wanted to. It's an inspiring message, one to take away from a motion picture that otherwise is only too happy to stay safe and conventional.