October 23, 2009

Amelia plays up pandering patriotism

The horn-heavy musical score to Mira Nair’s eponymous Amelia Earhart biopic swells with the overwhelming sensation of patriotic pride intended to permeate the film. Pride in American dreams, values, and role models is at the heart of Amelia, inviting you to go into something like a blissful sleep wrapped in an American flag with the “Pledge of Allegiance” as your lullaby. But as a maudlin film aiming to soar as a majestic allegory for American life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (with the wind in its hair and a hand floating on the breeze), the film’s self-important voice-over narration combined with bombastic montages of water and clouds meant to convey the glory and freedom of flight fall as flat as overindulgent poetic waxing.

Amelia is a film about exploring new frontiers, testing limits, and being an exception to the rules, which is nothing we haven’t seen before. A film of scant substance and clunky exposition, it’s a clumsy Aviator rehash. Here, Hilary Swank, a definite physical match to Earhart, tomboys it up yet again, most likely in hopes of impressing an aureate little man named Oscar. But with her performance in this picture, there is little for the Oscar committee to take note of. Swank is no novice to playing a female American hero, but compared to the role of Alice Paul she inhabited so authentically in the HBO film Iron Jawed Angels, her performance in the first two tedious acts of Amelia occasionally feels little better than a community theater imitation of Earhart.

There are a handful of flourishes and inspired touches in the writing and direction, but the film hardly achieves anything more than mediocrity. The first two labored acts pay little heed to transitions and cohesion, wandering both in tone and plot, not to mention jarringly campy one-liners. The story clumsily shifts from its focus on Earhart’s feminist impulses and her marriage with George Putnam (a charming Richard Gere) to her infidelity with author Gore Vidal’s father. This sleazy Ewan McGregor cameo spends a half-hour distracting from the most interesting, most famous aspect of Earhart’s life: Her pioneering flights as an aviatrix. There is, however, a tender and palpable sweetness to the chemistry between Swank and Gere that does somewhat alleviate the dullness of these first two acts.

The film’s most serious detriment is that it fails to take full advantage of what could have been some amazing sequences displaying Earhart’s flying exploits—we have to wait for the third and final act to deliver the thrills and excitement of flight. Former Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston shines as the cowboy-like Fred Noonan, Earhart’s navigator who joins her on her doomed flight around the world. The third act in general is tight, clean, and largely a success—a saving grace for the film. In the end, however, weighted down by its heavy grandiosity and clunkiness, Amelia fails to take flight.