Friday, October 23, 2009
Movie review: Amelia
Mira Nair's ode to Earhart is a throwback to the Hollywood days of yore.
Mira Nair's new movie Amelia, about the life of pioneering American aviatrix Amelia Earhart, plays like a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood hero films. Its grand vistas, romantic score, and melodramatic scripting make it easy to imagine Hepburn and Tracy playing the leads, instead of Swank and Gere.
The film is constructed around Earhart's (Hilary Swank) final grand adventure, in which she attempted to fly around the world accompanied only by her problematic navigator, Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston). From various points in the narrative of this epic undertaking, we find ourselves flashing back to her formative years as a celebrated flier.
The movie is beautiful to behold (credit cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, of The Painted Veil fame). The vintage look of the piece brings back fond memories of the way flying used to be, with silver-skinned, deco-friendly aircraft, leather flight jackets, and flapping scarves streaming from open cockpits. The men get to wear great hats, too.
Amelia's early aviation aspirations gets a kick in the bloomers when she applies for a non-stop, across-the-Atlantic attempt being promoted by publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere). He's looking for a woman pilot to ride along simply as a passenger while two able-bodied males actually do the flying, which strikes Earhart as both fraudulent and something of a meaningless stunt. Nevertheless, when he points out what it might do to advance her career aloft, she decides to accept the subsidiary position.
Thus begins the long association between Putnam and Earhart, who are romantically smitten with each other, and who become -- in their separate ways -- singularly devoted. While another man (Ewan McGregor, as Gene Vidal) will make inroads into Earhart's heart, Putnam (according to the film) remains ever-faithful to his high-flying Amelia.
Which is a good thing for her, because without Putnam's patronage, few of her flying feats would have been possible from a resource standpoint. It's Putnam who arranges the speaking engagements that net Earhart some of the biggest money on the circuit in the midst of the Great Depression; it's he who snags her a faculty position at Purdue University's fledgling aviation department.
But most of all it's Putnam who procures for her, through the auspices of Lockheed Aviation, the splendid, gleaming, twin-prop Electra that will convey her stylishly into the realm of myth, if not the globe-circumnavigating record books.
Swank's portrayal of the Earhart character is all we could hope for. Her accent has that heavily-mannered Hepburn jauntiness as she dashes off bon mots and waxes poetic in off-camera monologues meant to approximate diary entries (or perhaps internal reminiscences). But the role itself gives Swank very little to play with -- Earhart's character is painted with brushstrokes that are not particularly complex, leaving us to wonder whether there's enough range to garner any sort of awards recognition.
Regardless, Swank's physical resemblance to the historical figure is downright remarkable, as are her mannerisms. Earhart was, by all accounts, plainspoken and personable. Though she appears to have never preferred palaver to action, she nevertheless succeeded in sweeping up even Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones) in the slipstream of her charm.
Gere distinguishes himself quite capably as the dapper George Putnam, whose character is shown to be troubled by his paramour's wild ambitions, incautious undertakings, and not particularly well concealed amorous adventures with pilot and ex-all-American quarterback Gene Vidal. (Meanwhile, Vidal's young son Gore -- portrayed by William Cuddy -- takes a real shine to Amelia.) In spite of his flighty wife's eccentricities, Putnam remains loyal and supportive. He can also be seen as the ultimate enabler of the tale, making it possible for Amelia to continue taking greater and greater risks in pursuit of her immoderate ambitions.
To Nair's great credit as a filmmaker, she succeeds in building and sustaining (through the last quarter hour of the film) a level of tension and suspense that flies in defiance of the fact that we already know exactly how Amelia's globetrotting journey is going to end.
There is poetry aplenty here, from Amelia's quoting of Carl Sandburg to the final vision of her silvery craft dissolving into a cloudbank.
Here's to nostalgia!
EARHART-ISM: "No borders -- just horizons -- only freedom."
PUTNAM-ISM: "Please remove 'obey' from the (vows) so we can wrap it up."