“Miss Amelia Earhart, why do you want to fly?”
“I want to be free.”
So began the trailer for the film Amelia, which was released late last month to an almost universal critical drubbing. When I saw the trailer over the summer, I had a bit of hope that the film might be worth the price of admission. Not because I’m a huge Hilary Swank fan (I’m pretty neutral on her) or a Richard Gere fan (meh), or even because it has Ewan McGregor (although I’ll see anything he’s in, as evidenced by the fact that I went to see this the night it opened with one of our dear readers). It was because, as someone who loves history, I’m always anxious to see if films about real people deliver the goods. Most of the time they don’t (see: A Beautiful Mind), but sometimes they hit the mark (see: Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland). And if a filmmaker chooses to structure a biopic as a love story, it tends to work better when both parties are supposed to be the subject of the biography (see: Reds, Walk the Line). The fact that Amelia was presented as a love story would have been fine — if it was about Amelia and her passionate love for flying. Instead, we got a movie about her passion for . . . Richard Gere?
Director Mira Nair and screenwriter Ronald Bass seemed all too happy to keep the focus on the domestic front and not the cockpit. This movie is about a woman who was a pioneer for women in aviation, someone who dared to cut her hair short and wear pants at a time when that was considered completely outrageous. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. And we never see the development of that passion for flying. The film opens with her meeting George Putnam (Gere), who she will go on to marry after what appears to be the most anemic courtship in biopic history. There’s a bit of did-they-or-didn’t-they business when Earhart meets the suave aeronautics instructor Gene Vidal (McGregor), whose son Gore (yes, Gore Vidal) asks Earhart to marry his father. Never mind that there’s no actual evidence of an affair with Vidal; it’s more a device to throw tension into the Earhart-Putnam romance, which doesn’t work because the audience never feels invested in that marriage. And since the audience doesn’t care much about the marriage, it sucks the air out of the interest in Amelia herself. She’s presented as half of a partnership more than she is as an independent woman, and that’s the tragedy of Amelia.
By the way: Putnam was only ten years Earhart’s senior; Gere is twenty-five years older than Swank. But that much older man/younger woman pairing is a proud Hollywood tradition, as is completely missing the point of the subject of a biographical film.