Amelia is the least interesting movie ever made about anyone who ever lived. Ever. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have some minor technical joys: The set and costume design create an authentic feeling of Depression-era America (the first one), and the cinematography from Stuart Dryburgh captures the postcard beauty of pastoral nations around the world. But director Mira Nair, so adept at drawing joy and sorrow from her characters in films like Monsoon Wedding, is stuck behind a dead stick. Part of the reason is likely that co-writers Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan aren’t so much telling the life story of pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart as they are recapping the highlights, drawing from a pair of biographies, Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn and Mary Lovell’s equally melodramatically titled The Sound of Wings. Ultimately, though, it’s Nair who fails to connect with Amelia on a deeper level or give her any kind of resonance on screen, creating a two-dimensional character with direction but no drive, action but no intent. It’s the most antiseptic, toned-down, unrealistic slice of life ever promoted as a gripping biopic. I had hoped to learn something of Amelia Earhart from the film, but I left as empty as I came.
The film begins in Miami, 1937, as Amelia (Hilary Swank) is setting off on her final attempt to circumnavigate the globe with no one else on board but navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston). Amelia narrates part of the trip and scattered patches of the film with a dewey-eyed voice-over full of stilted phrases and uncomfortable poems. The action then jumps back to the beginnings of her modern career, though Nair continues to sporadically cut throughout the film between Amelia’s rising career and her trip around the world. Sliding back to 1928, the film proceeds to show Amelia’s meeting with New York book publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), who’s scouting for a female commander to take point on a trans-Atlantic mission, attach her name to a ghostwritten account, and earn some cash for him and for Amy Guest, the socialite sponsoring the flight. Amelia’s first run-in with George is portentous — this is the man she’ll end up marrying — though it plays with all the flatness and predictability of a montage or highlight reel. Nair and the writers take it too much for granted that Amelia’s fate is set, and as a result they forget to imbue dramatic moments with sufficient tension. If the what is a given, the focus should be on the why and the how, but Amelia never really rises above the level of a History Channel re-creation. All the facts are here, assembled in order, but there’s no heart tying them all together.
The absolute worst, though, are the moments when the movie comes perilously close to making Amelia an actual human woman instead of just an ideal of inspiration. As Amelia makes trans-Atlantic journeys and begins to garner fame for herself and George, she’s absorbed into the American media machine and forced (one would hope) to grapple with her identity. She bucks a little at the branding she’s made to endure for everything from Lucky Strikes to her own brand of luggage, but there’s no evidence other than a few plainly stated lines that she’s unhappy with what’s going on. It’s also sad that a female filmmaker as accomplished as Nair didn’t wrestle more with the thornier issues of Amelia’s uphill battle for gender equality. Amelia is named “Lady Lindy” by the press, as if she’s not her own person but just a copy of Charles Lindbergh with different plumbing. She’s romantically pursued by Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), who has the only conversation in the film wherein Amelia hints at revealing what it might be like to be one of the only women in the world doing what she does. When Gene remarks that Amelia always seemed to want to be one of the boys, she responds quietly, “I may have at one time. Now I’m not so sure.” But that tantalizing glimpse of the pressures of being a groundbreaker is quickly gone, allowing the by-the-numbers bio to unfold.
That single-minded focus on the nuts and bolts is also what keeps the dialogue firmly rooted in melodramatic schlock. I’m well aware that society has undergone seismic changes in the past 70 years, but did people ever really talk like this? When Amelia returns from a voyage and jumps into the arms of an eagerly waiting George, he unironically says, “Well done, commander!” No talk of pride or love, or fear or worry, and certainly none of it in anything resembling an American sentiment. Weirdly, Phelan is known for adapting true stories about strong women (Gorillas in the Mist and Girl, Interrupted), which makes this screenplay a curious aberration, though co-writer Bass penned Stepmom and Entrapment, among others. Perhaps there was a disconnect from the beginning that never got solved.
Swank is kind and serviceable in the role, occasionally emotive but mostly content to act as if the burden of portraying Amelia is enough for now. The film seems lazily constructed to steer her toward awards consideration, and that tone of unearned acclaim permeates the film. Even Gere, capable of modest range, is hamstrung by the story’s weaknesses. Amelia Earhart’s story is by all rights a tragic one, a woman in love with something that would be her undoing, determined to do it no matter the cost. But there’s no demonstrable arc to the story or Swank’s characterization of Amelia: She simply is, like a straight line from titles to credits. Her guaranteed death brings no weight or drama to the film, only a signal that the rote story will soon be over. Title cards at the end talk of how Amelia’s fate has “intrigued the world for generations.” That’s something Amelia will never do.