The opening credits note that Amelia, Mira Nair’s portrait of femme flier Amelia Earhart, is based on two separate biographies, but the filmmakers could have saved time and money by merely cribbing from Earhart’s Wikipedia page, since the movie never moves beyond the superficial facts of her life. Screenwriters Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan skim through Earhart’s history like a college student cramming for a test, focusing on the years between her first transatlantic flight in 1928 and her disappearance while attempting to circumnavigate the globe in 1937.
Her hair cropped, her skin freckled, and her voice compressed to a nasal Hepburn drawl, Hilary Swank bears a remarkable resemblance to the woman she’s playing, but the impersonation is glib and glancing. She’s so constrained by mannerisms that she never gets beyond the character’s surface—although to be fair, trying to import feeling into the movie’s stilted dialogue is like trying to fly a plane blindfolded. That holds even truer for Richard Gere’s turn as Earhart’s promoter and eventual husband, George Putnam. Never the most technically accomplished actor, Gere is helpless when confronted with mock-classical lines like, “Only you, my dear Amelia, could say those brutal words to me.” Brutal indeed.
If Amelia has any value (which is a dubious proposition), it’s as an object lesson in the follies of the conventional biopic, which puts mindless recapitulation of historical data above analysis or insight. The messy fascination of life is replaced by a schematic series of setups and payoffs. The second it’s mentioned that Christopher Eccleston’s navigator is a recovering alcoholic, it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before he falls off the wagon at a pivotal moment. His lived-in performance is one of the film’s only bright spots, though, along with Cherry Jones’ fleeting turn as an impish Eleanor Roosevelt.
Although capably filmed by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, the movie lacks any hint of the visual flair common to Nair’s best work. (Criterion’s sparkling new edition of Monsoon Wedding makes for an apt, and damning, comparison.) It isn’t so much hard to believe that Nair directed Amelia as it’s hard to believe it was directed at all. Considering its focus on a pioneering, rule-breaking icon, the film’s utter lack of personality isn’t just a failure. It’s close to an insult.