A review of the Hilary Swank feature film entitled "Amelia" from the New Yorker Magazine
by David Denby November 2, 2009
In “Amelia,” Hilary Swank, playing Amelia Earhart, the celebrity aviatrix of the nineteen-twenties and thirties, has a big, toothy smile, high cheekbones, and short hair that seems to have been chopped with a knife. Earhart’s clothes—men’s pants, shirts, and leather flying jackets—perfectly suit Swank’s lean, small-hipped body. The actress carries herself with an endearing mixture of boldness and shyness—the Earhart lope and the Earhart wave, with the arm sharply bent, have the right degree of awkward casualness. We can see why the flier’s androgynous style became chic. In all, Swank gives a fine performance as a woman who was both willful and eager to please. Yet except for one fiery moment—when Earhart chews out a balky pilot whose heavy drinking reminds her of her alcoholic father—it’s not an exciting performance, and, the way the movie has been conceived, it can’t be. Earhart was the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo; she accomplished many other airborne feats and became an active campaigner for women’s rights. She was a genuine heroine, but I can think of little reason to celebrate her as blandly as the director Mira Nair has done here. “Amelia” is handsome yet predictable and high-minded—not a dud, exactly, but too proper, too reserved for its swaggering subject.
The narrative of Earhart’s life—constructed by the screenwriters Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, who adapted biographies by Mary S. Lovell and Susan Butler—is framed by her doomed last flight. She took off from Miami on June 1, 1937, at the age of thirty-nine, intending to circumnavigate the world at the equator. But somewhere near her mid-Pacific goal of Howland Island she and her navigator, Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), disappeared. Once this frame is established, the movie swings to the past: a rural Kansas girl, coltish, dreamy, physically fearless, Amelia starts stunt flying in her twenties and is then tapped as the first woman passenger on a cross-Atlantic flight. She puts up with her passive status grumpily (Swank’s mouth turns downward in irritation), but George Putnam (Richard Gere), the publishing heir and public-relations genius who set up Earhart’s passage, turns her into a national celebrity, with her own line of clothes and luggage. The movie is candid about Putnam’s mercenary interest in Earhart, and Gere plays him as a shrewd, polite, fussy opportunist who gradually falls in love with her and accepts her conditions for marriage—that she will be free to do as she likes.
All this is presented with no more than moderate energy. The elegant atmosphere of thirties high life—men in dinner suits, women in backless silk dresses, a black torch singer undulating in a supper club—is enjoyable enough, but Nair can’t seem to find the dramatic center of it. The film accumulates detail, dutifully, rather than gathering significance. I was hoping that things would pick up when Ewan McGregor makes his entrance as Gene Vidal (Gore’s father), the airline executive who becomes Earhart’s business partner. Earhart’s affair with Vidal has been whispered about for decades, but Nair treats it delicately, remotely. What does Earhart want from Vidal that she’s not getting from the faithful and attentive Putnam? If it’s sex, the explosion isn’t on the screen. (The filmmakers, some seventy-five years after the fact, appear eager to protect Earhart from scandal even as they’re publicizing the affair.) Not only are the adultery scenes ultra-civilized; Nair’s direction in general lacks rhythm and urgency—the characters talk to each other placidly, in semiformal complete sentences. There’s only one bit of mischief: young Gore, fond of Amelia, asks her why she can’t be married to his father and to Putnam, too. Even as a child, it seems, Vidal wanted to be a swinger.
Again and again, as Earhart soars around the world, Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography captures the landscapes below, filled with scampering animals and native children. The over-all visual style is pretty, even luscious, in a familiar, National Geographic sort of way. But Martin Scorsese did a lot better in “The Aviator,” by aggressively styling Howard Hughes and the heroic-aviation period as a kind of Art Deco poster. Alas, the impression of fervent cliché isn’t helped by Earhart’s remarks. “I want to be free . . . to be a vagabond of the air” may be a real quote, but it sounds too much like a feminist inspirational handbook. The air, she says, becomes “a simple, safe, beautiful place where everything is comprehensible,” a line that might resonate if the rest of life were incomprehensible to her. But, as far as we can tell, with Putnam’s constant help she gets along extremely well.
The most stirring sight in the movie is the airplanes, including the Lockheed Vega 5B, a red, short-winged mono-engine job, as fat as a bumblebee. They’re like the planes in an old children’s book, and, after watching Amelia take off in these picturesque crates, we’re relieved to see her in something with the size and the heft of the Lockheed Electra 10E, a twin-engine silver beauty—though that plane turns out to be the vehicle of her destruction. The scenes of missed communications between Earhart and the radio operators stationed off Howland Island are an anguished reconstruction of what feels like simple technical inadequacy, yet the filmmakers don’t dramatize this final flight as the half-insane event that it was. Earhart was warned that she would run out of fuel. Was she foolish and vain as well as heroic? Irony, however, doesn’t fall within Nair’s range. Made straight in this way, “Amelia” should have come out in 1940, or even in 1970, when a rebellious and physically courageous woman was a fresh and bracing sight. At this point, the picture fails to break new ground in the air.
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