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Role Model of the Runway

Amelia (2009)

Ken Woroner/Fox Searchlight Pictures

In the age of convention-defying biopics — films such as “I’m Not There” that reflect the lives of their subjects in content and form — it’s strange to encounter “Amelia.” There could not be a motion picture more diametrically opposed to that aesthetic, more resolutely classical Hollywood in its making. Taking the snapshot approach to a fraction of aviator Amelia Earhart’s (Hilary Swank) life — running through the highlights in rough chronological order — it borrows such old-fashioned conceits as the use of newsreels and headlines to propel things forward and mannered, overly-calculated impressions posing as performances.

In some ways, it’s refreshing to experience a picture so clearly attuned to a long, illustrious litany of predecessors, to see that the old-studio Warner Bros. way of making highly-polished, dignified screen biographies hasn’t been completely eviscerated. At the same time, the film comes across as both hopelessly dated and as a significant shortchanging of the true tale of one of the 20th century’s pioneers. It’s a disappointing choice of projects for director Mira Nair, best known for her work on “Monsoon Wedding” and other films rife with an Eastern sensibility, who modulates her approach to befit the rigidly-defined Westernized structure.

The picture restricts itself to the years between Amelia’s ascension to superstardom in the late 1920s and her last flight in 1937, with only the occasional visual and verbal allusions to all that came before. Ms. Swank, in another of her androgynous portraits of a feminist role model, plays Earhart as a spunky self-assured ’20s heroine in a close approximation of how Katharine Hepburn might have played her. The film simultaneously renders Earhart’s ascension to the status of global icon, replete with frequent stunt flights and seemingly endless self-promotion, and the personal turmoil encased in the tepidly portrayed love triangle between her, her husband George Putnam (Richard Gere) and aviation pioneer Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor).

There’s not much insight to be gleaned from most of “Amelia,” which keeps the title character at frustratingly enigmatic lengths. The film never adequately conveys just what it was on a deeper level than admiration for her accomplishments that caused so many to respond so strongly to her. The earthbound scenes are hampered by the burdens of the period, with the devotion to the crafting of Amelia’s public identity submerging her private sphere. Most of the movie consists of an endless stream of moments in which Amelia hustles to some sort of private benefit or other honorary ceremony, hobnobs with well-dressed dignitaries, waves to flashbulbs or works with Putnam to meticulously plan her P.R. strategy. The notion of Earhart as the first modern celebrity, grappling with the less-appealing elements of fame that have only been magnified today is a fascinating one, but it’s rendered superficial by the need to forever march forward through time.

Amelia felt dragged down and besieged while on Earth and only free when she could soar through the sky. Similarly, the movie abandons its pedestrian façade with its soul-crushingly safe linearity and achieves some transcendence in the air. The meditative aerial views of cloudless skies and clear blue waters and the sight of a moving plane as a speck against a vast canyon, or of animals streaming across wide open African plains, retain a strong connection to the wonder that must have been felt by the men and women of Earhart’s generation upon experiencing flight for the first time. It’s in these moments, underlined by her mystically intoned voice over, that one finally gets some sense of just who the mysterious Earhart might have been. Sadly, they’re too few and never compensate for the monotony on the ground.


Opens on Oct. 23 in the United States and on Nov. 13 in Britain.

Directed by Mira Nair; written by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the books “East to the Dawn” by Susan Butler and “The Sound of Wings” by Mary S. Lovell; director of photography, Stuart Dryburgh; edited by Allyson C. Johnson and Lee Percy; music by Gabriel Yared; production designer, Stephanie Carroll; produced by Ted Waitt, Kevin Hyman and Lydia Dean Pilcher; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. This film is rated PG by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Hilary Swank (Amelia Earhart), Richard Gere (George Palmer Putnam), Ewan McGregor (Gene Vidal), William Cuddy (Gore Vidal), Christopher Eccleston (Fred Noonan), Joe Anderson (Bill), Cherry Jones (Eleanor Roosevelt) and Mia Wasikowska (Elinor Smith).


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