To say that “Amelia” never gets off the ground would be an understatement; it barely makes it out of the hangar. Handsomely mounted yet dismayingly superficial, Mira Nair’s film offers snazzy aerial photography and inspirational platitudes in lieu of insight into Amelia Earhart’s storied life and high-flying career. Prestigious packaging, led by Hilary Swank’s gussied-up performance as the iconic aviatrix, portends friendly commercial skies for the Fox Searchlight release, at least initially. But critical disdain is unlikely to be countered by much audience enthusiasm, even among admirers of this kind of old-fashioned, star-powered bio-mush.
Condensed by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan from two hefty biographies (Susan Butler’s “East to the Dawn” and Mary S. Lovell’s “The Sound of Wings”), the 111-minute film unavoidably leaves out enough particulars to bug Earhart experts. But omission matters less than interpretation, and what rankles most about “Amelia” is the timidity and lack of imagination with which Nair approaches one of America’s most exceptional and intriguing celebrity life stories.
In focusing on the decade between Earhart’s first taste of fame in 1928 and her 1937 disappearance over the South Pacific during an attempt to fly around the world, Nair frames the drama as the tale of a woman who chafed against gender barriers in pursuit of big dreams, and inspired others to do the same. The theme is apparent from the moment Amelia, an eager if inexperienced pilot, meets George Putnam (Richard Gere), the New York publisher who made Charles Lindbergh a bestselling author and hopes to work similar wonders with a femme flyer.
While George warns Amelia not to set her sights too high, her pluck and resolve are such that she becomes the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, albeit as a passenger, making her an instant superstar (“Lady Lindy”). A few listless flashing-headline montages illustrate Amelia’s rise to stardom on the lecture circuit and in advertising, which help fund her very expensive first love, flying.
Her second love is George, whose marriage proposal she accepts after some resistance. But their union is strained by Amelia’s restlessness, her unhappiness with the distractions of fundraising, and most of all by her growing fondness for pilot and aeronautics professor Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), the father of a very young Gore Vidal (William Cuddy, winning).
Apart from one stolen kiss, the film tiptoes around Butler’s assertion that Amelia and Gene were lovers, lest Amelia become too flawed (and thus too interesting) a heroine. But due to the writing and direction of Amelia’s romantic interludes with either George or Gene, the half-formed love triangle never seems in danger of catching fire anyway. Not helping matters is the image of Gere playing yet another older man opposite a younger woman (a shot of Amelia and George on the beach looks like something out of “Nights in Rodanthe”).
But it’s Swank who must shoulder the heaviest thesping burden, and her Amelia remains earthbound. An actress who does her best work in plain-spoken, contempo working-class roles, Swank is a decent physical match for her subject, and her slightly androgynous appearance here underscores Earhart’s standing as a woman among men. But the character’s passion hasn’t been sufficiently dramatized (this Amelia likes to fly planes because the script says so), and every effort to transform Swank — the close-cropped blonde hair, the ’30s costumes designed by Kasia Walicka Maimone, the actress’ wobbly Kansas accent — ends up feeling like one fussy affectation on top of another.
Similarly, Nair, who has made fine films (“Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake”) that stayed close to her Indian roots, seems completely beholden to biopic formulas here. Slathered in banal voiceover narration and Gabriel Yared’s hyperactive score, the pic gets a lot of mileage out of Stuart Dryburgh’s f/x-enhanced aerial lensing (largely captured over South Africa). But the footage is postcard-pretty without being psychologically revealing; Imax documentaries and theme-park attractions offer comparable pleasures at a fraction of the length. Intermittent black-and-white newsreel footage of Earhart adds some interest but also feels like a nervous bid for authenticity.
Amelia’s final flight (snippets of which are intercut with the narrative proper) is handled with tasteful directness, steering clear of the conspiracy theories that have dogged Earhart’s legend. But “Amelia” seems uninterested in mining any fresh meaning or mystery from its subject’s fate — which, though tragic, was also instructive, an American spin on the Icarus myth — and the buoyant, follow-your-dreams note struck at the end only trivializes it.
As Fred Noonan, the often-soused but skillful navigator who vanished along with Earhart, Christopher Eccleston strikes up a prickly chemistry with Swank, while Cherry Jones has her moment in the cockpit as a besotted Eleanor Roosevelt. Excellent period design boasts gleaming re-creations of vintage aircraft, including the twin-engine Lockheed L-10 Electra that Earhart flew to the uncertain end.