With Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor. Rated PG for some sensuality, language, thematic elements and smoking. 111 minutes.
When we think of film genres – for those of us who do – we tend to think of musicals or science fiction or gangster movies. But the “biopic” (the “biography picture”) is as much a genre as any of those. The details of the lives may change, but the way the stories are told follow predictable patterns. With AMELIA, director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “Vanity Fair”) stays within safe parameters in bringing the life of Amelia Earhart to the screen.
If people know anything about Earhart at all it is that in 1937 the pioneering pilot was on the final portion of a round the world flight when her plane was lost at sea. She and navigator Fred Noonan never made it back although no trace of the wreckage or their remains were ever recovered. Their ultimate fate is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century.
Thus “Amelia” begins with Earhart (co-executive producer Hilary Swank) getting ready to begin the trip, meeting the press with her publisher husband George Putnam (Richard Gere). We admire her grit and determination. The film then goes back to the beginning. After a very brief scene where the young Amelia sees early planes in the Kansas skies, she becomes a pilot herself and eventually is brought in by Putnam for what is essentially a publicity stunt.
No woman has succeeded in flying across the Atlantic (after Charles Lindbergh became the first man to do so), and she is hired to be that woman. She’s articulate, she’s attractive, and – as he makes clear – she is to follow orders. Although supposedly the “commander” of the trip, she is in fact a glorified passenger. In the scenes of that journey, Nair (and writers Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan) convey just how dangerous such a flight was, and just how precarious were their chances for success. Earhart would later use her prestige to promote the birth of the commercial aviation industry, but at this point there were few guarantees.
When she returns, a national heroine, Putnam finds himself taken by her and eventually convinces her to marry him (although she stops the wedding vows to object to the word “obey”). She later becomes involved with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), an aviation instructor whom she helps get a role in the new government agency devoted to the field. He has a young son named Gore who, of course, grows up to become the famous novelist. After various crises, husband and wife are work through their problems and are more in love than ever, but she has to make one last flight. We all know how that’s going to end.
“Amelia” succeeds in conveying the ups and downs of Earhart’s life, leaving us admiring a feisty and independent woman who forged her own path. With solid performances and some beautiful aviation photography, the fact that it is following a formula that has been used to tell the story of musicians, sports figures and a variety of others ought not to matter.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.