“Flying lets me move in three dimensions,” she says early on. Well, so does standing on an escalator and scooching over to get out of someone else’s way. But flying is supposed to be more exciting than that. So it’s strange that the first few stolid scenes of “Amelia” suggest otherwise.
She was the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic, and she would have been the first to fly around the world if she hadn’t vanished halfway across the Pacific in 1937. So any movie about Amelia Earhart’s life has a sort of public obligation to soar. Yet this one, in the beginning, at least, feels much more like being on that escalator, going down.
Director Mira Nair’s steadily reverential biopic, with Hilary Swank in the title role, apparently seeks only to maintain a popular appreciation, gently transferring it from one generation to the next. Hovering around the period of the middle 1930s during which Earhart became a celebrity, it doesn’t have much to add to her lore, but by necessity of movie convention does have much to subtract from her life. Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan’s script is said to derive from not one but two Earhart biographies (Susan Butler’s “East to the Dawn” and Mary S. Lovell’s “The Sound of Wings”), and their ostensible thoroughness serves mostly to convey the semblance of a book report.
Or maybe a poster portrait? That’s where Swank comes in, with a performance so good and gracious that it almost doesn’t matter if the movie isn’t much of a movie. Obviously she understands that the real trick with stories whose endings we know (and, with due respect to the conspiracy theorists, we do know) is reminding us why we cared in the first place. Swank’s consistent and cleverly recessive charisma is what finally gets this film off the ground, if only barely.
We’re allowed the framework of a few proverbial plot points, such as Earhart’s courtship with and marriage to the publisher and promoter George Putnam (played by Richard Gere), her uneasiness with the endorsement deals that subsidized her adventures, and of course the various challenges–not least an alcoholic navigator, played by Christopher Eccleston–of the flights themselves. And we do get testimonials of her character. In one revealing scene, the young son (played by William Cuddy) of an airline-industry pioneer (played by Ewan McGregor) finds himself frightened in a room decorated with exaggerated jungle imagery, including many malevolently predatory animals. Earhart reassures the boy that she decorated the room that way on purpose, in order to confront her own fear. Where and when this fear originated, or why and how she decided to cope with it via freaky wallpaper, we are not meant to know. But the boy is Gore Vidal, whose pugnacity later in life we are expected to know, and to credit at least in part to Earhart’s influence.
In other words, the Amelia of “Amelia” is fully formed as a role model from moment one, and so she remains all the way through to the end (and beyond). All the film really does, dramatically, is observe and endorse her resistance to being thwarted. The rest is just a warm and winning turn from Swank, who manages to dispense advice like “Don’t let anyone turn you around” without a trace of stridency, and to seem birdlike as much for her easy gentility as for her acclimation to an all too briefly airborne life.