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Review

Aviatrix biopic crash lands

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October 29, 2009

Everyone knows about the tragic disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the American aviatrix who mysteriously vanished somewhere over the Pacific in 1937 while attempting to become the first female to aeronautically circumnavigate the globe. With the ending already spoiled, it seems common sense that a big screen biopic chronicling the life of this pioneer, both in aviation and women’s rights, would spend its time building to that forgone conclusion with some amount of emotion, development, hell maybe even a little story. Alas, director Mira Nair presents little more than an overly polished rundown of

Earhart’s greatest accomplishments. That might do for mandatory 7th grade viewing during the ‘History of Flight’ unit, but it’s quite inexcusable on the silver screen.

“Amelia” starts out promisingly enough – it looks gorgeous. There is not a dent in the period cars, not a wrinkle on the pressed suits and skirts. The characters, all bathed in a near majestic golden yellow, seem to personify the very image of hope and prosperity. Watching the film, one could never tell that it takes place during the Great Depression.

But then the characters open their mouths. The script, penned by Ron Bass (“Rain Man”) and Anna Hamilton Phelan, stands as a testament to ‘Capra-corn’ cheesiness and sickening sentimentality. The ideas that “dreams do come true” and “the sky is the limit” are force-fed to us, crammed down our throats with little support other than Hillary Swank’s all-too-perfect, canned smile; if nothing else, the film
is a shining example of the seductive power of quality dentistry.

In stereotypical Hollywood fashion, Nair runs down Amelia’s adult life­ – her childhood is barely hinted at – like she is checking events off a bulleted list. Amelia flies. Amelia gets famous. Amelia flies again. Amelia marries G.P. Putnam. And so on and so forth. The requisite period-defining details – grainy newsreel footage and jazz music – do liven the film a bit, but “Amelia” is quickly and permanently grounded in its stubbornly singular focus on Earhart’s marriage to GP. Much as “Walk the Line” did with Johnny Cash and June Carter, “Amelia” attempts to breathe emotional depth into its leads by chronicling the ups and downs of their relationship set against a backdrop of historical events. But unlike other, successful biopics, “Amelia” tries to hard to force some sort of tension out of an otherwise banal marriage, and inadvertently domesticates Earhart to the point of boredom.

Amelia did, briefly, have an affair with aviation entrepreneur Gene Vidal, but as that sinfully intriguing subplot registers as far too interesting, and would otherwise mar Nair’s hero-worship, the adulterous fling is quickly glazed over.

Sadly, not even the acting can salvage some sense of dignity. Otherwise brilliant Swank and Richard Gere look pretty, if not a little fake, but never quite find their stride. Their accents, either over- or under-practiced, sound artificial, even forced at times. And there are far too many shots of both just looking off in the distance – perhaps they are searching for a better script, one without so many gag reflex-tugging, Hallmark-denied love lines.

To be fair, “Amelia” is far from the worst movie to (crash) land in theaters this year. Aviation enthusiasts and Earhart admirers will no doubt walk away satisfied with the pedestal Nair has placed their hero up on, but it does stand as a weak, disappointing opener to the Oscar-bait season.

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.