By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009
Amelia Earhart wore pants.
Also, men's neckties and a boy's tousled haircut. And she refused to cover up her abundant freckles with makeup -- at least according to "Amelia," a drama starring Hilary Swank as the pioneering aviator.
She also took a rather casual attitude toward sexual fidelity in her marriage to publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere). Meaning she fooled around like, well, a guy, in the words of one of her flyboy pals, navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston).
Oh, yeah. She also became, in 1928, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, during a time when a lot of women didn't even drive. Later, she and Noonan would come darn close to circumnavigating the globe. That is, until their plane disappeared over the Pacific in 1937.
Earhart was, in short, an unconventional woman. Extraordinary, even.
So why does this biography, directed by Mira Nair ("The Namesake") from a script by Ron Bass and Ann Hamilton Phelan, feel so . . . by the book? (Two, actually. It's based on "East to the Dawn" and "The Sound of Wings.")
Could it be because most us already know all that stuff about Earhart's accomplishments and still-mysterious death? As the film opens, with Earhart about to set off on what was to be her last global adventure, who can't see how it's all going to end? Even for those who never heard of the woman, the film telegraphs its unhappy conclusion. Are you going to give up flying, a reporter asks, after achieving this milestone? "Not while there's still life left in me," Earhart answers, portentously. Nair has Swank repeat the line again, toward the end of the film, just in case you're really thick.
Not that there isn't loads of inherent drama in this life story. The proto-feminist flier had to overcome enormous sexism just to be taken seriously in the cockpit. In an earlier transatlantic crossing before going solo, Earhart was relegated to passenger status. Though given the title of "commander," she sat in the back seat, while a man did the actual flying. And the trips themselves were fraught with danger, as Putnam reminds us, over and over again, how many people have died attempting to do what Earhart did.
Maybe that's part of the problem. There's so much story to tell here that too much of it is told, rather than shown. "We've been flying for 19 hours plus!" shouts Bill (Joe Anderson), the pilot who manned the controls during Earhart's first transatlantic crossing. Nair even resorts to that hoariest of film tricks: the spinning-newspaper-headline montage, as a kind of expository shorthand.
Look, nobody's asking for a miniseries here, but at times the movie feels more like a History Channel documentary -- respectful to the point of reverential -- than a rip-snorting yarn. And that's despite a scene where Earhart almost falls out of the plane while soaring over the Atlantic Ocean in what looks like an airborne tin can.
Would that the film had taken as many risks. When it comes to some of the wild speculation that has arisen over the years about what happened to Earhart during that final flight, the movie doesn't even go out on a limb, opting instead for the sort of vague, open ending that, is historically safe and cinematically dull.
It doesn't seem to have helped matters either that Swank is the film's executive producer. As sometimes happens when movie stars give themselves jobs, there's a whiff of a vanity project about "Amelia." After one too many close-ups of Earhart's freckled face screwed up in cucumber-cool determination at the throttle, the film starts to feel like little more than a vehicle for advancing the two-time Oscar-winning actress's award-season chances.
In the end, the biggest mystery isn't what happened to the pilot, but what happened to the human being. Sure, the character, as played by Swank, has flaws. But not many. There's so much pluck and gumption on the screen you can smell it. Flesh and blood? Not so much.
But who can blame Swank for being drawn to Earhart's life? It's an inspiration to little girls everywhere. Those looking for something a little more grown up are, like the aviator, out of luck.
* ½ PG. At area theaters. Contains a couple of mild vulgarities, brief sensuality, smoking and dangerous flying. 111 minutes.