The biopic pattern/trap in films is a hard one to avoid. Follow the typical biopic structure seen in Ray and Walk the Line (formative childhood incident, early struggle, meteoric rise, alcohol-/drug-/fame-/infidelity-induced fall, redemption) and you're accused of being formulaic. Attempt to reveal little-known, potentially darker aspects of a luminary's life and you're accused of trashing a legend or attempting to rewrite history.
So Mira Nair's film about Amelia Earhart, Amelia, sort of does neither. Unfortunately, it's still not very good. Watch the trailer below.
I hardly knew anything about Earhart before seeing Amelia -- and I didn't feel like I knew much more when I left.
Instead of showing scenes from Earhart's youth to explain how she might have developed her love of flying and desire to break gender barriers, the film starts when she is already a pilot and has been tapped to be the first woman to make a transatlantic flight (though essentially as a passenger). While it can be annoying when a biopic tries to attribute too much of a person's life to a single childhood event, I never understood why Earhart loved flying so much -- a real problem for a movie about a pilot. We're told that she flies because "she wants to" and that it's "fun" and gives her "freedom", but not why she wants to, what makes it so fun, and the nature of the captivity flying frees her from. And unfortunately, a person piloting a plane for long stretches of time is not the most exciting or revealing thing to watch.
We learn that Earhart became a brand, endorsing Lucky Strike cigarettes and her own clothing and luggage labels. While she wasn't crazy about this, it generated income so she could continue flying. So she did it. Okay. She also encouraged women to become pilots and was a leading figure in promoting commercial air travel. Seems natural for the world's most famous female pilot.
I did enjoy the fact that there is some traditional gender role-reversal in that Earhart was reluctant to marry her supportive publicist/publisher George Putnam (played by Richard Gere), she set the terms of their fairly open marriage, and had an affair with Gene Vidal (father of Gore, played by Ewan McGregor) without apparently feeling much remorse. But it's the role reversal that makes it interesting -- Putnam's character is largely a male version of the supportive wife/girlfriend found in many biopics about men. While there have been questions about whether Earhart was gay, the movie doesn't address them and is being marketed as a heterosexual love story. Some also believe Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan did not crash into the Pacific Ocean in 1937 during her attempt to be the first person to circumnavigate the globe, but instead landed on a small island and eventually died there. This is also not addressed in the film. Earhart's legacy as a feminist icon who encouraged women to move into male-dominated fields also isn't given enough attention. It also would've been nice to learn more about the challenges of early aviation and why it was so dangerous.
Amelia is attractively shot by Stuart Dryburgh, and the performances by Swank, Gere and McGregor are all solid. The costumes are quite nice, and a female friend I saw the movie with audibly gasped at the introductory shot of McGregor looking very handsome in a tuxedo. She claimed it was nearly worth seeing the film just for that moment. Okay.
There's nothing to hate about Amelia, unless you're simply sick of big stars in glossy biopics (as many of us are). Unfortunately, there isn't much to love about Amelia either, unless you're a female pilot excited to see your patron saint receiving some modern-day recognition. But if you're interested in learning more about Amelia Earhart, a book is probably the way to go.
Follow Jonathan Kim on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ReThinkReviews