Amelia Earhart’s accomplishments include:
- Woman’s world altitude record: 14,000 ft (1922)
- First woman to fly the Atlantic (1928)
- Speed records for 100 km (and with 500 lb (230 kg) cargo) (1931)
- First woman to fly an autogyro (1931)
- Altitude record for autogyros: 15,000 ft (1931)
- First person to cross the U.S. in an autogyro (1932)
- First woman to fly the Atlantic solo (1932)
- First person to fly the Atlantic twice (1932)
- First woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross (1932)
- First woman to fly non-stop, coast-to-coast across the U.S. (1933)
- Woman’s speed transcontinental record (1933)
- First person to fly solo between Honolulu, Hawaii and Oakland, California (1935)
- First person to fly solo from Los Angeles, California to Mexico City, Mexico (1935)
- First person to fly solo nonstop from Mexico City, Mexico to Newark, New Jersey (1935)
- Speed record for east-to-west flight from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii (1937)
And now, 72 years later, we can add to this litany of acheivement:
- Terrible Biopic (2009)
All of the elements of a good film are there: money, accomplished director (Mira Nair, The Namesake), one of the great American stories, Academy Award winning principal cast (Hillary Swank, Richard Gere), the unmistakable styles of roaring ’20s (and early ’30s), and several scenes with a child version of Gore Vidal. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as it turns out.
I’m not sure who to blame here. Is it the screenwriters, the producers, or director Mira Nair herself? No matter. Whomever decided which elements of Earhart’s life to feature in this Oscar-grab-of-a-biopic should find work at Lifetime Movie Network. Instead of exposing to us Earhart’s motivations for flying, we’re given a one-dimensional love story about an open marriage, and a flat tale of celebrity. We learn nothing about why she must fly, how she got interested in aviation, why exactly Earhart is a pioneer. We aren’t left with a message about women breaking boundaries, or even with a renewed appreciation for aviation. The relationship between aviation and Earhart is severely lacking — and that’s the only reason that anyone cares about her today. We came to the theater to fly, but Amelia never gets off the ground.
The dialogue, adapted from two separate Earhart biographies, is overly calculated and unworthy of its subject or its deliverers. Swank, Gere, and Ewan McGregor (whose character spends most of his screen time being seen and not heard — and not in a good way) do well with what they are given, but it’s just not much. Gere’s accent is a bit cartoony, but Swank clearly studied and practiced Earhart’s accent. She lands both her tenor and the timing of the era. It’s too bad that the dialogue she’s given to work with is dry as dirt.
With flat characters, unclear motivations, and blank words, you’d expect the score to be memorable or the movie itself to be beautiful. Not so. While there are sparse few moments of hope — a tickertape parade for Earhart that’s particularly well-shot, some magnificient roving landscape shots of blue whale families in the ocean, a cool thunderstorm in the clouds, Victoria Falls, and the Masai Mara — most of the scenes are just bland, with the obvious, clamoring score only serving to make things worse.
Most offensive is the insult to our intelligence, and the lack of any lesson learned by or about Ms. Earhart. I want a story to take home from this movie, but I’m fed a tacky montage of newspaper headlines that quickly coast through Earhart’s celebrity and career. Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but think Wow, I want to see what I just read in that fake newspaper actually happening on-screen, and Why am I reading about The New Deal? Instead, I’m given Earhart cheating on her husband, hanging out with a young Gore Vidal (I’m sorry, that was just stupid, historically inaccurate, and weird), and inappropriately having a “let them eat cake” moment concerning The Great Depression. We want inspiring, we’ll take beautiful. What we get is aggressively schmaltzy.
The Upside: Two standout performances: A convincingly tragic Christopher Eccleston as Earhart’s navigator Fred Noonan, and Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. It’s a damn shame that beautiful bird was never found.
The Downside: 89% of the movie.
On The Side: Joining the Film School Rejects crew at the screening were the Austin, Texas chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots whose founder and first president was Amelia Earhart.
Watch the Amelia trailer: