There are so many facets to Amelia Earhart, and the times in which she lived, that trying to squeeze them all into the confines of a conventional two-hour biopic is almost as reckless as her ill-fated flight around the world. How far does she get? Let’s just say it’s impossible to tell given all the thick, acrid smoke emanating from an enterprise that crashes upon takeoff. Oh, the humanity!
There are so many facets to Amelia Earhart, and the times in which she lived, that trying to squeeze them all into the confines of a conventional two-hour biopic is almost as reckless as her ill-fated flight around the world.
That hasn’t stopped the infinitely wise folks in Follywood from giving director Mira Nair clearance to try and lift the ungainly bird dubbed “Amelia” from its earthbound restraints.
How far does she get? Let’s just say it’s impossible to tell given all the thick, acrid smoke emanating from an enterprise that crashes upon takeoff. Oh, the humanity!
There are no survivors, either. Not Ewan McGregor as aviation pioneer Gene (father of Gore) Vidal; not Richard Gere as Amelia’s live-in PR director George P. Putnam; and not two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as the iconic woman the press famously ordained “Lady Lindy.”
They all perish in the flames stoked by a script by Ron Bass (“Rain Man”) and Anna Hamilton Phelan (“Gorillas in the Mist”) that isn’t worth the flammable paper it’s printed on.
Instead of insight and understanding, they present empty snapshots representative of their inability to penetrate Earhart’s enigmatic shell to discover what inspired her to literally reach for the clouds.
They also can’t decide what aspect of Earhart’s life to build their script around: her thirst for adventure, her push for equal rights, her love-hate relationship with her drunken father and repressive Midwestern roots, or her open and brutally honest marriage to the Svengali-like Putnam.
So they serve up a little bit of each, like hors devours at a cocktail party. And while they may satisfy your hunger in bits and drabs, they never leave you feeling full.
Nair valiantly fights to pick up the slack by filling the screen with gorgeous images and even more gorgeous actors. But like the writers, she’s unable to cut to the heart of her subject or the dire economic times in which she rose to fame as a symbol of hope and inspiration for a nation beset by its crestfallen dreams.
Part of that might be because Nair was born and raised in India, where they probably care as much about the Great Depression as we do about India’s fight for independence. The bigger problem, I’m convinced, is that Nair is used to working off her own scripts in critically acclaimed flicks like “The Namesake” and “Monsoon Wedding.”
And what sets those films apart from “Amelia” is their ability to create rich, complex characters in which you can fully, and easily, invest. This time those skills are glaringly deficient, as is Nair’s knack for creating a strong sense of place.
About 90 percent of “Amelia” could be happening at any time and any place, especially the poorly drawn, cliché-ridden, PG-rated love triangle that forms between Earhart, Putnam and Vidal. Not once do the filmmakers proffer a reason why Earhart would be attracted to either man, a problem exacerbated by Gere and McGregor’s failure to imbue their characters with an ounce of charisma.
There also exists a disconcerting absence of chemistry between the boys and Swank, whose lack of range is fully exposed whenever she is asked to silently communicate Earhart’s thoughts while at the controls of her beloved plane.
These are essential moments, too, when the audience is expecting Swank to back up all the hyperbole and platitudes spouted about how free and alive flying made Earhart feel. But Swank plays them like she’s on automatic pilot, staring soullessly into the camera, even when her plane is about to ditch into the vast Pacific Ocean, never to be heard from again.
Unlike Susan Clark, who played the aviatrix more than 30 years ago in the superior TV movie “Amelia Earhart,” Swank projects none of the suppressed feelings of regret the Queen of the Air felt over prostituting her image by shamelessly shilling for cigarettes and toasters to earn enough money to fuel her flying exploits. Nor is there any of the remorse Earhart must have felt in forgoing raising a family with a passel of children like her sister Muriel did.
Yes, Swank might be up in the sky, but she’s always in over her head, futilely trying to flesh out a deep, complicated woman who not only deserved her iconic status, she also deserved a better movie, one that captured her love and passion for flying instead of wallowing in superficiality.
Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.