[Ed. Note: Weekends are for movies. So we turned to our film critic friend, Todd Gilchrist, for a review from the court of critical opinion.]
Watching Amelia, it’s hard to know what’s more generic—the rise, fall, and redemption story structure that director Mira Nair adopts in order to examine the life of Amelia Earhart, or the aviatrix’ life itself. Having seen virtually every major (and plenty of minor) Hollywood biopics in recent years, and despite knowing nothing about Earhart except that she was a prominent female pilot who died in the 1930s while trying to circumnavigate the globe, there’s not a single new detail that surprised me in the film.
But as one of the few major movies about women whose achievements are genuinely worthwhile—even if they’re otherwise utterly conventional—Amelia modestly succeeds at inspiring its audience and provides a remarkably well-rounded role model for modern women, thanks to a terrific performance by Hilary Swank.
Swank plays Earhart in exactly the way she needs to be remembered, regardless how accurate such a portrayal might actually be: Liberated, sensitive, reflective, poetic, and above all else, self-assured. She sells herself to publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere) with a mix of intelligence, charm and gumption. After she convinces him to let her be the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic, albeit as a passenger, she becomes a national celebrity, and Putnam not only makes her a superstar thanks to book, lecture and endorsement deals, but eventually makes her his wife, despite her protests that she’s “not the marrying kind.”
While George gladly maintains her celebrity empire from behind the scenes, Earhart’s star continues to rise, eventually drawing the attention of Gene Vidal (Ewan Macgregor), with whom she has an affair. But as personal distractions mount and professional obligations continue to keep her earthbound, Earhart increasingly longs to return to the skies that she calls home, ultimately leading her to take on a challenge—flying around the world—that will certainly immortalize her in the history books, whether or not she lives to tell the tale.
As interesting as Earhart is as a person, it’s disappointing to see her life reduced to the conventions of a three-act structure, which, like most biopics, offers way too much hindsight to give her final days a credible sense of catharsis. Bypassing the majority of her childhood, Earhart appears to us full-grown and fully developed as a person, confident and plucky and indefatigable for no greater reason than her ongoing, overwhelming desire to be “free.” This of course plays directly into her personal relationships, particularly those between her and George and later, Gene—dalliances with the latter of whom are viewed more as a reflection of her modernity than legitimate infidelity.
Mind you, it’s genuinely admirable to watch the story of a woman who took charge of her sexuality, especially since so many biopics of men (much less fictional dramas) forgive their philandering. But cinematically speaking, the decision not to vilify her for sharing herself with two men at the same time, in the process hurting her husband, feels more like a concession to the film’s theme that women can do everything that men can…and then some—even if that particular story development was based firmly in fact.
Moreover, for a film about a self-possessed woman essentially taking on a completely male-dominated industry at a time when such outspokenness was almost unheard of, Amelia feels too free of real friction or conflict, save for the emotional confrontations in her private life. After her initial conversation with George convinces him to take her seriously, we never see her face real oppression or challenges except for monetary ones. Further, given the fact that even the least familiar audience members know the broad details of her life, her incidents during flights all have the polished veneer of artificial, calculated drama, since we know at the very least she’ll make it though this particular (and literal) storm en route to her rendezvous with destiny over the South Pacific Ocean.
That said, Swank is typically amazing in the title role, giving Earhart dimensions that the script fails to provide, and elevates automatic treacle like a final conversation with her husband to the stuff of stern and satisfying melodrama. And Gere continues to evolve after decades of smugness into a compelling character actor, supporting Swank’s performance both as her on screen partner and formidable and pragmatic force to bounce her idealistic optimism against. Together, they really expand the emotional palette of the film far beyond anything that screenwriters Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan come up with, and occasionally—if not consistently—turn that familiar structure into something substantive.
Ultimately, however, Amelia’s unobtrusive approach to the aviatrix’ life may be a result of fealty to a different, if also entirely, familiar convention—namely, as bait for awards season voters who wet their pants when actors and actresses do convincing impressions of real people. And truth be told, I’d be hard-pressed to recall many other performances from actresses this year that are serviceably better than Swank’s. But as Pavlovian fare for future AMPAS votes, a softball inspirational story or just a chronicle of Earhart’s life that’s predictable whether or not you already know the details, Amelia flounders too often when it should be flying because it creates a biography that’s elegant, handsome and safe, even though the life that inspired it seems like anything but.
Todd Gilchrist is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He contributes regularly to AOL’s Cinematical blog as well as Sci Fi Wire. His reviews frequently appear on Rotten Tomatoes.