Mira Nair's Amelia is a solid, well-delivered biopic and love story of the famous American aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank). While it covers the major events and textures of her life story, including her writing, her love affairs, her major achievements in the air, features very good acting all around, and is even moving in places, it does feel a bit bloodless and mannered much of the time.
The film opens on a leg of Earhart's last, round-the-world flight with navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), then cuts back to her first meeting with her future husband, the publisher G.P. Putnam (Richard Gere), who is organizing a trans-Atlantic flight for a woman pilot, and incidentally offers a book deal which will help defray the expenses. The catch, which Amelia accepts reluctantly, is that she will not actually pilot the craft, but be the "commander," an empty-sounding promise which actually does end up having some meaning.
Armed with a growing international reputation as an air pioneer, and a pioneer for women, Amelia, with G.P. by her side, first as manager/business partner and later as her husband, determines to follow her dreams and ambitions as a pilot, setting more records and conquering further dangerous and adventurous travels, reluctantly using her fame commercially to finance these, and engaging in a serious affair with fellow aviator Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) which, for a time, threatens her marriage to Putnam.
These events are intercut with further interludes from her last, doomed voyage, and a few scenes of her childhood--mostly skimpy. While breaking up the main story with the story of her last flight is a pretty effective way to prolong and heighten the suspense, one wishes for very much more of her childhood and young adulthood, the beginning of her flight training and perhaps more of her work for women's rights.
Hilary Swank is outstanding as Earhart. The physical resemblance is strong, and one feels convinced and comfortable with her unconventional Earhart. Swank's narration of much of the film from Earhart's own writings is well read, and there's a certain Katharine Hepburn quality about her which is welcome and appropriate to the role.
Richard Gere is also quite good as Putnam, who is by turns smitten, wistful, jealous, worried and encouraging of Earhart's career, and tolerant of her personal quirks and eccentric (especially for a woman of the time) personal journey.
Other standouts in the cast include Joe Anderson as Bill Stultz, the skeptical pilot of her first trans-Atlantic trip and Eccleston as Fred Noonan, the ace--but perhaps a bit too alcoholic--celestial navigator of her final journey. Both convey doubt turning to trust convincingly, with Eccleston's character a bit more complex than Anderson's. Eccleston and Swank get the very last moments we see of Amelia and Noonan just right, and eloquently, acting in a confined space with just their faces, eyes and few movements.
It's hard to call this the definitive biopic. It could have been more interesting and entertaining much of the time. Insertions of recreated and real newsreel footage are sometimes necessary, and sometimes feel like rushing, or just out of place. The clipped contemporaneous cadences of the characters takes a little getting used to. And while there is a very pronounced effort to keep going a sense of Amelia in the air, one might wish for more about how she kept her feet on the ground.
Overall, if you're going to see Amelia, see it for the love stories and the main performances by Swank, Gere and Eccleston. It has a tendency to float when it should speed and speed when it should be allowed to float.
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