There has been a spate of recent well-done biopics worth noting: Taylor Hackford’s “Ray,” James Mangold’s “Walk the Line” and Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” to name just a few. These films all center around fascinating cultural figures and manage to capture the essence of the artists depicted in ways that truly connect with audiences. Unfortunately, despite centering upon an undoubtedly fascinating central figure, Mira Nair’s “Amelia” has little in common with those aforementioned films. It is completely lifeless.
It’s not that the life of the most famous female aviatrix wasn’t exciting. She was, after all, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic! There were scandalous affairs, there was a runway crash of an $80,000 aircraft — that’s a lot in the 1930s! Earhart influenced women everywhere — including Eleanor Roosevelt. Heck, there is enough material here to fill a HBO miniseries. Yet despite living such an adventurous and powerful life that was tragically cut short when her plane disappeared over the Pacific, “Amelia” manages to take these events and transform them into half-hearted and rather boring footnotes. The picture fails to go the distance and really never capitalizes on the true excitement of this Depression-era high-flying hero.
What biopics like “Ray,” “Walk the Line” and “Milk” (all Oscar-winning films) have in common is that the dramatic life events of their title subjects were depicted with such a raw and emotional human depth that the viewer finds it difficult to not become completely immersed in the life of the person they are observing. “Amelia,” on the other hand, never takes advantage of these emotions, furthering the distance between the viewer and Ms. Earhart.
What further alienates the viewer is that the film doesn’t use the “drama” of drama. In one scene, Amelia (Hilary Swank) attempts to take off in Honolulu and crashes on the runway; Amelia and her navigator (Christopher Eccleston) are lucky to escape with her lives. From the smoke and steel of the runway, the scene anticlimactically cuts to Amelia lying in the arms of her husband George Putnam (Richard Gere), briefly discussing the crash and calmly deciding they would try again. No one cries, no one rips a sink from the wall, no one has a powerful speech of their convictions to an adoring crowd. The drama just isn’t there.
It’s hard to determine specifically where the film went wrong. Is it Swank’s performance? Not really. She was likeable, endearing and believable. Was it the cinematography? No. The sweeping shots of the African Savannah and the endless horizon of the ocean are more than visually captivating. The costuming and attention to detail of the time weren’t to blame as they lent a hand to the grand feel of the thirties. Where the fault lies would have to be with the direction of Mira Nair, who was anything but present in the film. She just couldn’t capture the essence and spirit of Amelia enough to make the movie as fresh, exciting and imaginative as this truly legendary American icon actually was.
Far from Johnny Cash or Harvey Milk’s intense and powerful screen biographies, “Amelia” crashes into the realm of lackluster and forgetful filmmaking.