How to Ameliorate a biopic

When I think of Mira Nair films, I think of rich visuals, steady pacing, well-developed and introspective characters, beautiful moments where time seems to stand still, and musical numbers tucked in here and there for fun.

When I think of Amelia Earhart, I think of someone fast-paced, high-flying, dedicated, passionate and ground-breaking.

Amelia is lovely, as a half-baked Mira Nair film, but as a biopic of one of the most daring and exciting women of all time? Unfortunately, there’s not much stylistic overlap between the life of one woman and the story-telling style of another.

I was so excited for this movie because it’s based on two biographies written by women, directed by a woman, produced by and starring one of Hollywood’s top women, Hilary Swank…. and also Ewan McGregor’s in it. As a romantic rival for Richard Gere. Leading to the fundamentally unbelievable moment when Amelia leaves McGregor to return to Gere so they can go walk on a beach. Puhleaze. *ahem* Anyway,  fans of Across the Universe and Slings and Arrows and Dr. Who will all have moments of ZOMG! ZOMG! and frantic attempts to silently convey via brainwave that omg that guy was in that thing, remember?!?!?! Alas, with anyone but my movie-watching Mtastic former roommate, this doesn’t work, so remember to make a mental note so you can squee about it later.

One of the missing pieces in the movie for me is the total absence of Amelia’s childhood. Nair cut directly from the first time Earhart saw a plane fly overhead to her flying solo. No adolescence, no demanding her way into flight school, no parental approval or disapprobation, nothing. Swank’s characterization is also a tad grating, both vocally and physically. I kept wishing for Katherine Hepburn. Or Cate Blanchett playing Katherine Hepburn from The Aviator. We get to sort of see the building connection between Earhart and her manager-guy, George Putnam (Gere), and I loved that she wasn’t eager to get married, wasn’t lovey-dovey in public, and that her open marriage allowed for a dalliance with Gore Vidal’s dad, Gene (McGregor).

Trouble is, since she’s telling a true story, Nair directs as if knowing we know all the plot points – and we do, to an extent – Earhart flies a bunch, achieves a bunch, vanishes mysteriously (oddly, Nair left out the real ending where Earhart is living happily in Brazil somewhere. Interesting directorial choice). But the little ups and downs? All implied, very few outright demonstrations. Earhart’s establishment of the women’s aviation society, what she spoke about during the lecture series that financed her flying… We get the sense that her flying career was conducted in the public eye, and that this was stressful, but we don’t get to see much of what the public saw. Or rather, what the public wished they got to see, behind the scenes in her professional life.

Amelia did feature lots of luscious from-the-air shots, often featuring Swank’s voices reading Sandburg poetry or excerpts from Amelia’s book or letters, and some of Nair’s biggest success is in those moments where she allowed the story to pause, so an emotional scene could really breathe. Those moments reminded you that Nair is a gifted director. But then in the next minute someone (Gere) would deliver a wooden line of dialogue in a weird nasal voice he’d put on for the occasion, or Swank would sound like she was trying for sainthood instead of portraying a real, human woman, and I was back to fervently wishing Ewan McGregor had not also been shooting that Phillip Morris movie so we could see more of him and I don’t just mean featured in a longer scene.

Still, Amelia effectively conveys that Earhart was a groundbreaker, that she cultivated and supported other women flyers (or um, aviatrices?) even if she had to compromise herself by endorsing products and leaping through hoops on the lecture circuit to do it. And I sniffled as she had her last radio goodbye with Putnam, and some more as she couldn’t hear the radio communication from the waiting naval ship.

I don’t know if Nair felt hobbled by time constraints, or lack of access to what the real Amelia’s inner world looked like, or what, but the factual information would have been better communicated in a documentary, and the engaging visual texture belongs to a better movie than Amelia.

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