Thursday, October 29, 2009

Amelia: Stalled flight

Amelia (2009) • View trailer for Amelia
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.29.09
Buy DVD: Amelia• Buy Blu-Ray: Amelia [Blu-ray]

As long as this film is in the air, it positively soars.

Hilary Swank delivers an all-embracing performance, playing the legendary pilot in director Mira Nair's crisply paced but oddly flat Amelia. With her tousled and "mannish" hair cut, not to mention an eerily similar frame, Swank looks for all the world like the actual Amelia Earhart.
Immediately prior to beginning her ambitious, around-the-world trip, Amelia
Earhart (Hilary Swank) poses for photographers along with husband George P.
Putnam (Richard Gere, center) and navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher

She also captures Earhart's polite but feisty manner, her eyes flashing at the very suggestion that a woman might not be capable of anything a man could do. It was a rare attitude in the 1930s, and it got Earhart into trouble more than once; Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan's script  based on two Earhart biographies  touches on this vexing aspect of the aviator's public image.

One might argue that Earhart was born 50 years too soon, but that's wrong; if not placed firmly in her own era, her accomplishments  both as a woman, and also as a flier  wouldn't have been nearly as impressive.

The trouble is, Nair's film stalls every time it returns to earth, as we spend considerable time with Earhart's unconventional relationship with promoter and publishing magnate George P. Putnam, played with his usual wooden anti-acting by Richard Gere. Given Earhart's free-spirited, wild and untamable nature  so well captured by Swank  it's simply impossible to imagine her falling for the sort of one-dimensional stick portrayed here by Gere.

Mind you, Earhart and Putnam were quite the item in real life, and I've no doubt that the actual gentleman must've been one helluva persuasive charmer. But Gere can't sell that act; given that his entire thespic range revolves around his signature smirk, he never makes Putnam look anything but insufferably smug.

Nothing would have turned Earhart off faster.

So we go with the flow, grind our teeth every time Gere pops up, and wait for the next transcendent flying sequence, when Swank once again conveys, with such sparkling, wide-eyed wonder, the sense of oneness Earhart must've felt every time she was in the air.

Nair's film confines itself to Earhart's final decade, roughly from her first Atlantic crossing, in 1928  as passenger, rather than pilot  to the fateful 1937 trip around the world, which left her adoring public with a mystery. This fairly tight focus must've been necessary as a means of holding the film to an acceptable running time; Earhart's short life was so busy  so laden with activities, causes and shrewd self-promotion  that a lengthy miniseries would be required to get a full sense of what she accomplished before perishing just shy of her 40th birthday.

The downside is that we don't learn how a Kansas farm girl had the means to become such a force of nature, or indeed even gained access to this male-dominated profession. Swank's Earhart, as introduced, already is a self-assured, fully accomplished Woman On A Mission when she walks into Putnam's office one day and persuades him to select her to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, in a Fokker F7 piloted by Wilmer Stultz.

We never get to see, for example, that Earhart was a youthful 24 when she started taking flying lessons on Jan. 3, 1921, just a few months after American women won the right to vote. Or that she earned her flying license in December of that same year.

Nair and her screenwriters essentially confine their study to the point at which Earhart became, practically overnight, the Roaring 20s equivalent of a rock star. It's simply impossible, in our media-driven 21st century world, to imagine how wildly famous she became, and how unusual that was at the time.

Swank's aw-shucks poise makes her a most engaging celebrity, and one worthy of the friends she developed in high places, starting with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (a short, telling performance by Cherry Jones).

Absorbing the fire that Swank breathes into her performance, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept the inevitable; we can't help wishing for an alternate universe where Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston, best remembered for having re-booted the Doctor Who franchise) are saved from their fate during the final leg of that 1937 trip.

The film actually is structured around this last, most ambitious excursion, which begins June 1, 1937; the other key points of her highly visible public career unfold via flashbacks. Keeping things straight isn't difficult, as Swank's weary, sunburned features cue each return to her jubilant flights across great swaths of Africa, Asia and all other ports of call.

Back in the recent past, in between signing copies of her first book and promoting her own brand-name fashion line at Macy's, Earhart encounters the dashing Gene Vidal, played with debonair panache by Ewan McGregor. (Ah, if only McGregor could have played Putnam!) Vidal was a fascinating historical figure in his own right, founding three American airlines and serving as director of the fledgling Bureau of Air Commerce from 1933 through '37.

These days, ironically, Vidal is remembered mostly because of his son, who grew up to become famed writer Gore Vidal. Young William Cuddy plays the adolescent Gore in a few brief but warm-hearted scenes.

McGregor's portrayal of Gene Vidal has the combustible erotic tension so woefully absent from Gere's performance, and it's easy to see how Earhart would fall for him, in essence dividing her private life between two men for quite some time (a controversial element still disputed by some biographers). As a pilot and aeronautics instructor at West Point, Vidal lived in the same world as Earhart; he clearly understands her drive in a way that Putnam never could.

That said, the script hiccups clumsily when little Gore innocently wonders aloud why Amelia can't have two husbands. That's rather too precious.

Nair frequently blends her dramatized action with authentic black-and-white newsreel footage from Earhart's era, and we grow so accustomed to this gimmick that it seems completely natural when the film concludes not on Swank's plucky features, but on the actual Amelia, as she poses alongside her beloved twin-engine, silver-and-orange Lockheed L-10 Electra.

Considerable care has been taken, in fact, to present the aviation details as accurately as possible. The effort apparently paid off: Last week's preview screening included several clearly pleased members of the Sacramento Valley chapter of The Ninety-Nines, the still-vibrant organization of women pilots that Earhart helped organize in 1929 (so named because of its 99 founding members).

The film also benefits from composer Gabriel Yared's melancholy score, with its strong echoes of the Academy Award-winning work he did in 1996's The English Patient ... another drama that draws considerable pathos from its frequent images of a small plane in a huge sky.

Yared's orchestral underscore amplifies the building dread in this film's final act, as Earhart and Noonan approach their destiny: a heartbreaking combination that's almost beyond endurance.

The pathos of this final sequence notwithstanding, Nair's film remains frustratingly uninvolving. It won't stand the test of time; it simply doesn't have the full-on dramatic weight that Earhart's life and career deserve. The 1976 TV film with Susan Clark did a better job of capturing Earhart's rise to glory, and  Swank's superior work here aside  it may remain the definitive movie account of the famed aviator.

Sadly, when it comes to Amelia Earhart's 2009 film appearances, most folks are more likely to remember Amy Adams' comedic spitfire in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

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