Amelia: Mira Nair’s Biopic of Legendary Aviatrix

Old-fashioned, “Amelia,” yet another version of the legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart, is a misfire, an ultra-conventional biopic that unfolds like a narrated photo album. 

By trying to encompass every facet of Amelia Earhart’s life, as a visionary dreamer, as a feminist fighter, as a fashion icon, as a modern cool woman operating in a man’s world, director Mira Nair and her scribes, Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, have made a superficial film that’s all plot, or rather a semblance of a plot.

Part aerial adventure, part celebrity study, part romantic triangle, part mystery, but not satisfying on any of these levels,” Amelia” is hampered by a screenplay that’s all turning points but no substance. There’s really no excuse for such sloppy, surface treatment for there have been at least half a dozen features and TV movies about Earhart, not to mention numerous books, so she is not exactly an unknown figure. Nonetheless, this “Amelia” fails to offer a fresh angle—or any discernible perspective—on its heroine.


Strangely, the writers claim to have drawn facts and inspiration from two biographies of Earhart: Susan Butler’s “East To The Dawn,” which explores little-known aspects of Earhart’s life, including her secret affair with the aviator and businessman Gene Vidal, and Mary Lovell’s “The Sound of Wings,” which focuses on Amelia’s modern and complex relationship with her publicist husband and the intense promotional machinery that surrounded her.


The movie begins and ends in the summer of 1937, when Amelia set off on her most daunting mission to date, a flight around the world that she had anxiously foreseen as destined–whatever the consequences–to become the most talked-about journey in history. A whole reel is therefore devoted to the events before, during, and after her mysterious disappearance on July 2, 1937. 


The historical scope is rather narrow, about a decade, from her sudden exposure to global fame in 1928 to her shocking disappearance mid-flight in 1937.  Unfortunately, the movie consists of too many scenes some of which lasting only a minute or two, before the yarn shifts quickly onto the next episode in the heroine’s life, often accompanied by montage of headlines from newspapers and radio programs. 


Celebrated as the first aviatrix to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Amelia Earhart led a bold, uncompromising life as a woman ahead of her time, an adventurer who refused to see limits, and a symbol of American spirit. In brief, superficial strokes, identified by title cards indicating the specific time and place, the narrative chronicles Amelia’s skyrocketing rise to fame, her record-shattering flights that forged her image as “Lady Lindy,” her love life, which was complicated by devotion to flight and freedom, her legacy of courage, social advocacy, and independence. 


According to this version, after becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, Amelia was thrust into the position of “America’s sweetheart,” the “goddess of light,” known for her bold, larger-than-life charisma. The tale wants us to believe that, even when her fame solidified, her belief in flirting with danger, pursuing what many considered a reckless career, standing up as her own woman, Amelia, the good little country girl from rural Kansas, had never really changed.  


The socio-economic context, in which Amelia thrived, the height of the Depression, is just as superficially depicted as the story of her life, sort of a lip service. In one scene, driving in a limo, she observes a line of homeless people on the street, waiting to be served food. With a sad, but unconvincing voice, Amelia tells George, “Why have I been so lucky? And the loyal husband suggests that she has earned it. And, voila, the harsh times around her are acknowledged, so that she can move onto dreaming higher and bigger, and spending a fortune on building aircrafts. 


Add to the aforementioned problems the lack of strong chemistry between Hilary Swank and Richard Gere, who plays the publishing magnate George P. Putnam, her older loyal husband and shrewd promoter and businessman, and between Swank and Ewan McGregor, cast as her longtime friend and lover, pilot Gene Vidal, and you truly have a troubled picture. If the movie is easier to take, it’s due to the visuals and other accomplished production values.


As scripted and acted, this Amelia is a woman of no flaws, other than having an affair with Gene Vidal during her marriage to George. She’s depicted as an inspirational figure to people of all walks of life, from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the men who worked with or for her as navigators and crew members, to young aspiring women, such as Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska) who wanted to emulate her, to children, such as Gene Vidal’s young son, Gore (who would become the famous writer and intellectual Gore Vidal), who wishes she married his dad.


For an epic movie, “Amelia” relies too heavily on three major roles but neglects to develop secondary roles of any significance, though they are celebs in their own right.  Take, for example, Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom Amelia struck friendship. Trivializing the eccentric persona of both femmes, the narrative depicts them schmoozing at a cocktail party and then in a nocturnal scene in which Amelia takes the First Lady for a flight, and the latter is utterly speechless. (You wonder, didn’t they talk about something more significant considering the turbulent socio-political times in which they lived?). 


In theory, Hilary Swank, with her slender figure, angular face (marked by sharp jaws) and androgynous look (remember how wonderful she was in “Boys Don’t Cry”), seems right for the titular part.  But, alas, she is defeated by a narrow-minded script, which is replete with one-liners and banal vice-over narration that’s borderline pretentious, with ruminations like “There’s more to life than being a passenger.”  In many scenes, Swank is reduced to a little girl, still dreaming, still fearful of the jungles, which is absurd, considering the tough woman she embodies.


Since Swank is credited as exec producer, I assume that she had approved the scenario and must have exercised some power behind the scenes, so the movie’s many shortcomings are not entirely the filmmakers’ fault.


In the press notes, director Nair describes “Amelia” as “a love story and an action-adventure for the whole family,” a PG-13 tale “about a young woman who gave a lot to many different people.” Which is precisely the problem. Safe and traditional, this “Amelia” is exactly the opposite of the bold and uncompromising woman that stands at its center.


I have liked many of Nair’s former films, beginning with the Cannes Festival’s award-winning “Salaam Bombay!” and continuing with “Mississippi Massala” and “Monsoon Wedding,” in all of which she demonstrated an acute eye for cultural diversity, the position of outsiders (often children and women), and colorful compositions. But, like her disappointing period drama “Vanity Fair,” the text or “Amelia” (and perhaps the entire biopic genre) proves inhibitive for her talents and skills for she seems confined almost slavishly by the most clichéd and schmaltzy notions of the rise and fall (or death) biopic format.


Ultimately, by omitting certain facts and selecting others, “Amelia” is yet another fable-fairy tale of the American Way of Life, which stresses dreaming and flying (here, literally so) and listening to the dictates of your heart (the sky is the limit), rather than offering a more critical portrait of the ways in which this admittedly grand lady reflected, benefited, exploited and reaffirmed individual achievement and profitability, the basic tenets of American Capitalism.



Amelia Earhart – Hilary Swank
George Putnam – Richard Gere
Gene Vidal – Ewan McGregor
Fred Noonan – Christopher Eccleston
Bill – Joe Anderson
Eleanor Roosevelt – Cherry Jones
Elinor Smith – Mia Wasikowska
Gore Vidal – William Cuddy 



A Fox Searchlight release of a Fox Searchlight and Avalon Pictures presentation.

Produced by Ted Waitt, Kevin Hyman, Lydia Dean Pilcher.

Executive producers, Ron Bass, Hilary Swank.

Co-producer, Don Carmody.

Directed by Mira Nair.

Screenplay, Ron Bass, Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the books “East to the Dawn” by Susan Butler and “The Sound of Wings” by Mary S. Lovell.
Camera, Stuart Dryburgh.

Editors, Allyson C. Johnson, Lee Percy.

Music, Gabriel Yared; music supervisor, Linda Cohen.

Production designer, Stephanie Carroll; art director, Nigel Churcher; set decorator, Gordon Sim. Costume designer, Kasia Walicka Maimone.

Sound, Drew Kunin; supervising sound editor, Dave Paterson; re-recording mixers, Dominick Tavella, Dave Paterson, Michael Barry.

Visual effects, Mr. X.

Stunt coordinator, Steve Lucescu.Line producer, Genevieve Hofmeyr.

Assistant director, Walter Gasparovic; second unit directors, Spiro Razatos, Marc Wolff, Miles Goodall. second unit camera, Jacques Haitkin.

Casting, Avy Kaufman.


MPAA Rating: PG.


Running time: 112 Minutes.