Amelia Earhart would never take off into the wild blue yonder without a calculated flight plan, so it's logical that the aviation pioneer's biopic shouldn't, either.
Yet Mira Nair's handsomely staged Amelia never knows which direction it's heading.
Is it a can-do American's patriotic saga? Not really, even if Earhart dead ringer Hilary Swank does have one scene in front of a U.S. flag that George C. Scott would envy.
Is it a tribute to feminism in an era when women still had floors of glass ceilings to break through? Not when Earhart can fly airplanes without facing much male chauvinism, and immediately finds dozens of other women to join her. That is, unless you count the fact that an open marriage provided opportunities for Earhart to sleep around. Heroically, of course.
No, Nair's movie is all about natty fashion and computer generated clouds, both of which look gorgeous on screen but miss the point. Biographies should tell us something we don't already know about the subject. Aside from claiming Earhart often spoke in lofty bromides like "I want to be free, George, a vagabond of the air," Amelia doesn't contain many surprises if you've paid scant attention over 70 years.
Swank's performance is technically fine, capturing Earhart's Midwestern twang and modesty in the face of worldwide celebrity. But buying a third bottle of Oscar statuette polish may be premature. Richard Gere provides a few good moments as George Putnam, Earhart's husband, promoter and publisher. The openness of their marriage is limited to Ewan McGregor as Gene Vidal (father of novelist Gore), who surrenders too easily when George gets wise.
Amelia is a movie that, as John Ford would suggest, should print legends when facts aren't good enough.
Nair attempts to camouflage a wispy script with an oddly out-of-place structure, jumping from one Earhart milestone to the next then back to sometime earlier. It might work if some telling information was revealed at each stop but seldom is. Blame it on two screenwriters working from two books, both with their own perspectives to cram into two hours.
There's no problem using Earhart's ill-fated 1937 attempt to circle the globe as a framing device. It's the hopscotch time frame in-between wrecking any cumulative appreciation of what Earhart accomplished. She finishes third in the only racing competition we see, but a scene of rekindled determination is missing. Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska) is introduced as a possible source of friendly rivalry but disappears until she's named Aviator of the Year.
We hear about the dangers of flight in the 1930s for either gender but see only one crash in newsreel footage. Earhart faces a couple of in-air crises, severely iced wings and a door flying open during turbulence, that probably happened. But they're shoved into the narrative as if Nair realized the screenplay needing goosing.
Only when Earhart's final flight is presented, with a critical mass of problems that might have caused its failure, does Amelia gain any dramatic altitude. It's also the only sequence when Swank is asked to do more than merely strike familiar Earhart poses for photographs, and talking like a Midwestern motivational speaker.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.