reviewed by Marc Glassman
Mira Nair, director. Ron Bass & Anna Hamilton Phelan, script based on the books “East to the Dawn,” by Susan Butler and “The Sound of Wings,” by Mary S. Lovell. Starring: Hilary Swank (Amelia Earhart), Richard Gere (George Putnam), Ewan McGregor (Gene Vida), Christopher Eccleston (Fred Noonan), Joe Anderson (Bill), Cherry Jones (Eleanor Roosevelt), Mia Wasikowska (Elinor Smith), William Cuddy (Gore Vidal)
Amelia Earhart was America’s heroine of the air. The articulate, shyly charismatic aviatrix embodied the free-spirited Twenties and the never-say-die optimism of Roosevelt’s New Deal to women whose lives were held, all too clearly, on the ground. She designed and advertised her own line of sporty clothing for women and wrote best-selling books about her adventures. And then, at the height of her fame, she disappeared over the Pacific, during the last stage of a journey that would have taken her around the world—to renewed global acclaim.
With a close-cropped haircut and a broad Kansas accent, Hilary Swank is the embodiment of Earhart. The two could be cousins; both have lithe athletic bodies and offer blindingly charming grins. Twice an Oscar winner (Boys Don’t Cry, Million Dollar Baby), Swank was an executive producer on the film and must have endorsed the director—Mira Nair (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding), principal cast—Richard Gere, as Earhart’s husband G.P. Putnam and Ewan McGregor, as Gene Vidal, her lover; and scriptwriters Ron Bass (Rain Man, Joy Luck Club) and Anna Hamilton Phelan (Gorillas in the Mist).
So where did it all go wrong? Amelia is lifeless. There’s no passion in the characters, little feeling for the time and no attitude expressed through the director or the actors that suggests any complexity in this fascinating tale. Neither Gere nor McGregor evince any excitement or genuine interest in Swank’s Earhart. Love scenes crumble like an old box of Corn Flakes, easily ground into dust in one’s hands.
Earhart was a feminist who extracted a vow of equality from her publisher and publicist George Putnam before agreeing to marry him. Their relationship was supposed to be an open one, allowing each the opportunity to stray if the situation warranted it. In the film, Earhart apparently has an affair with fellow aeronautics expert and sportsman Gene Vidal (father of writer Gore) and Putnam finds out about it. Are there histrionics? Nope. Amelia seems to have been made in the old “stiff upper lip” mode.
Amelia Earhart was above all a daredevil flyer. She flew the Atlantic as “a bag of potatoes” companion on a three-person flight, which launched her celebrity status in 1928. Not content, Earhart flew across the Atlantic solo three years later—to prove the point that she was a pilot, not a famous phony. She set nine records, including: the first woman to fly non-stop coast-to-coast across the US, first person to fly from Honolulu to Oakland and first person to fly solo nonstop from Mexico City to Newark.
What made Amelia fly? Nair and Swank don’t answer the question. For all of its faults, Scorsese’s The Aviator propels the audience along as Howard Hughes’ massive ego and ability forces him to impress people time and time again. Earhart wasn’t as crazy as Hughes but there must have been something compelling about her character that made her fly so many times—often at great risk to herself.
Amelia doesn’t get at the roots of Earhart’s character. It’s massively disappointing especially considering that Swank gives a charismatic Oscar worthy performance. In 1932, Katharine Hepburn played a character inspired by Earhart in the film Christopher Strong. As the pilot Lady Darlington, Hepburn suggested some of the egotism and romanticism that must have motivated Earhart. But the film fell apart at the end, despite the sensitive direction of Hollywood’s only female director at the time, Dorothy Arzner.
One can only hope that Hollywood won’t take another 75 years before attempting to make a film that will finally give Amelia Earhart her just due.