“Flying lets me move in three dimensions,” she says early on. Well, so does standing on an escalator and scooching over to get out of someone else’s way. But flying is supposed to be more exciting than that. So it’s strange that the first few stolid scenes of Amelia suggest otherwise.
She was the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic, who later vanished from the Earth while endeavoring to be the first to fly entirely around it. Any movie about Amelia Earhart’s life has a sort of public obligation to soar. Yet this one—in the beginning, at least—feels much more like being on that escalator, going down.
Director Mira Nair’s steadily reverential biopic, with Hilary Swank in the title role, apparently seeks only to maintain a popular appreciation and gently transfer it from one generation to the next. Sticking to the period of the middle 1930s during which she became a celebrity, it doesn’t have much to add to the Earhart lore, but by necessity of movie convention does have much to subtract from the actual life. Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan’s script is said to derive from not one but two Earhart biographies (Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn and Mary S. Lovell’s The Sound of Wings), but such authorial thoroughness doesn’t do much more for the film than making it seem sometimes like a book report. Or maybe a poster portrait.
We’re allowed the framework of a few proverbial plot points, such as her courtship with publisher and promoter George Putnam (played by Richard Gere), her uneasiness with the endorsement deals that subsidized her adventures, and of course the various challenges of the flights themselves.
In one revealing scene, the young son (played by William Cuddy) of an airline-industry pioneer (played by Ewan McGregor) finds himself frightened by a room decorated with exaggerated jungle imagery, including many malevolently predatory animals. Earhart reassures the boy that she decorated the room that way on purpose, in order to confront her own fear. Where and when this fear originated, or why and how she decided to confront it with freaky wallpaper, is not information we are meant to know. But the boy is Gore Vidal, whose pugnacity later in life we are expected to know, and to credit at least in part to Earhart’s influence.
The Earhart of Amelia is fully formed as a role model from moment one, and so she remains all the way through to the end (and beyond). All the film really does, dramatically, is observe and endorse her resistance to being thwarted.
What finally gets it off the ground? A warm and winning and cleverly recessive performance from Swank, who manages to dispense advice like “Don’t let anyone turn you around” without a trace of stridency, and to seem birdlike as much for her easy grace as for her acclimation to an all too briefly airborne life.