Sunday, January 31, 2010

Video review: "Amelia"

Most people missed "Amelia," the Hilary Swank biopic of Amelia Earhart, including me. The film wasn't screened for Indianapolis critics, and it fell into that category of movies I wanted to see and meant to see, but just didn't get around to.

I have quite a strong aviation streak in my family -- my mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law are all licensed pilots, my wife stopped training a little short of her own, my father was in the Air Force and worked at an airport most of his career, and my nephew is taking lessons toward his license. So movies about fliers tend to interest me greatly.

Structurally, "Amelia" is very similar to "The Spirit of St. Louis," the excellent movie starring Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. The fateful flight of their careers -- successful in Lindbergh's case, unsuccessful in Earhart's -- acts as the framing device, with flashbacks recounting the events of their life that led up to it.

Director Mira Nair ("The Namesake") and screenwriters Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan (working from a couple of source books) are to be commended for an unflinching portrait of the hype behind the Amelia Earhart legend.

Although an accomplished pilot, she was hired by promoter George Putnam (Richard Gere) as a passenger for a publicity stunt. She sat in the back of a plane bought by a wealthy dilettante as two men piloted it across the Atlantic. She was called the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but even she admitted her function was essentially that of "a sack of potatoes."

Later on Earhart undertook the flight again, this time solo, but there's no denying her career, or at least her role as a media darling, started off with a bit of showbiz fraud.

Swank portrays Earhart as an ambitious, independent woman who was willing to engage in flimflam -- speaking engagements, photo shoots, even endorsing her own line of clothes and luggage -- as long as it enabled to continue her passion for flying. Earhart always labeled herself a social worker who flew for fun, even though she had an historic impact on not only the feminist movement, but aviation history.

The movie is simply gorgeous to gaze upon -- Nair's shots of airplanes and the landscape passing beneath are practically worth the price of admission itself.

But the movie falls flat in other areas, particularly the portrayal of her relationship with Putnam, who would later become her husband. Nair and her screenwriters cut corners to focus on the flying. So we're left with a lot of scenes of Putnam staring forlornly into a radio transmitter, waiting for word that his wife has arrived safely.

Earhart's affair with Gene Vidal, who set up some of the earliest commercial flights, is given even shorter shrift. We never get a chance to see what they meant to each other, and the impact on her marriage is given the brush-off in a single scene in the couple's rose garden. Perhaps that's an ironic comment, as in "I never promised you a..."

The extent of the short-cutting is evident in the DVD extras. A bundle of deleted scenes reveals the character of Putnam's first wife, played by Virginia Madsen, whose role was completely cut out of the movie. I can only surmise that the filmmakers made a cynical decision to omit the fact that Earhart broke up their marriage in order to make the character seem more likable.

And what a blow for Madsen -- unknown actors get left on the cutting room floor all the time, but Oscar nominees?

Similarly, we learn that Earhart herself had a fiance, who bowed out when her career in the air took off.

The DVD also has a rather ordinary making-of documentary, and a featurette looking at the enduring legacy of Earhart. A nice addition is a number of original MovieTone newsreels about Earhart and her exploits. They help us see the cues Swank took in molding her performance, particularly the distinctive Midwestern accent of the Kansas native.

It's such a shame that such an unconventional historical figure received such a conventional film about her life.

Film: 2.5 stars
Extras: 2.5 stars

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