Reviews I've seen have been less than kind to "Amelia." The film "never gets off the ground," said one. "It never, however, truly takes flight," echoes another. Yet another carps that the film "barely makes it out of the hanger." "Where is the steely force that drives grand ambition, the fears, the flaws?"
All right… fair enough… "Amelia" is no tour de force character study of the great female aviator. Falling a little short of two hours in length in an era when three-hour films are no longer rarities, Director Mira Nair's movie is as old fashioned as the aircraft that Earhart flies. However, if we can't appreciate a straightforward, old-fashioned rendering of an essentially heroic life, perhaps the fault lies with us more than with the film.
So let's put aside our post-modern cynicism for a moment and thank the makers of "Amelia," first of all, for giving her and us a filmography that has been long overdue. As one (kinder) reviewer noted, "Charles Lindbergh's life earned its own solid-to-the-point-of-corny biopic 50 years ago…." So far as I can ascertain, the essential facts depicted in the overdue "Amelia" are accurate. For history lovers, this alone makes the film a contribution worthy of the price of admission.
Second, post-modern cognoscenti might remind themselves that, while corruption and cynical exploitation no doubt marred the heroism of past times as they do today, many Americans walked the walk and talked the talk of genuine idealism in days of yore. Just read the letters between Civil War combatants and their wives back home, if you doubt me. This idealism persisted at least through the Second World War; Tom Brokaw was right to dub my parents and their contemporaries as "The Greatest Generation." Earhart was a part of this American lumpin aristocracy.
Like all of her contemporaries, as well as all of us, she had her warts. Nair never ignores these. Earhart endorses products she neither uses nor even cares about, including Lucky Strike cigarettes. She cheats on her husband, Publisher (and master publicist) George Putnam with Gene Vidal, himself an aviation pioneer. (Incidentally, Gene was the dad of writer Gore, who would give us (among many works) the historical Narratives of Empire, including Burr, 1876 and Lincoln.) She most certainly is not portrayed as perfect.
Last, and far from least, "Amelia" does what it could hardly fail to do, given the grandeur of the theme. We experience the beauty and the terror of flight in the days when the technology, by 21st century standards, was alarmingly primitive. For example, Earhart's solo Atlantic flight was intended to take her to Paris, copying Lindy's feat. Instead she landed in Northern Ireland, where a surprised farmed inquired, "Have you flown far?"
The next time we sit like eggs in an egg carton, soaring at seven miles high and five hundred miles per hour, we might take time to reflect on some of the well-executed flying scenes in "Amelia" and appreciate the awe and terror pioneers such as Earhart must have experienced.
I also enjoyed the good, old-fashioned romance interspersed with Earhart's flying feats. Richard Geer as Putnam is his usual masterful self. The actor who gave us "Officer and a Gentleman" and many subsequent romances remains an aficionado of the love story. Hilary Swank in the title role builds upon solid performances as a Navy flier, who pilots a craft to the center of the earth in "The Core," and as a tough-but-tragic boxer in "Million Dollar Baby." She brings us a believable, likeable "Lady Lindy," as the press dubbed Earhart after her solo trans-Atlantic flight. Ewen McGregor rounds out the outstanding cast as Vidal.
Just a couple of quibbles, then, from yours truly: The final action sequence, when Earhart and Navigator Noonan go down, over-simplifies and sloppily portrays the aviators' disappearance, which remains to this day a matter of controversy and speculation. If you are like me, you look closely at the little things. When one Coast Guard white-hat (enlisted man) stands up and salutes another in the cutter's radio shack, well, that's just plain wrong military protocol. Even officers and enlisted men don't salute onboard ship unless both are covered (i.e., wearing their hats). Enlisted men never salute one another.
More importantly, putting the blame on navigator Fred Noonan by depicting him as hung-over during the fatal flight glosses the multitude of little errors that added up to disaster. Remember that Earhart had to hit a tiny atoll in the South Pacific and refuel, or else die in the vast ocean. The film does indicate that radio and direction-finder difficulties contributed to the failure to locate the tiny island with its airstrip. Perhaps that's the best a film such as this can do… suggest the accumulation of "horseshoe nails," loss of which loses the battle. My sense is that lengthening the film by ten minutes and depicting the final minutes of the fateful flight in greater detail and with greater care would have been appreciated by all in the audience.
But enough of that. I for one found "Amelia" to be just the right mix of romance and heroism I was seeking on a bleak November afternoon in this rather bleak first decade of the 21st century.
(Jim Castagnera is the author of Al Qaeda Goes to College and 17 other books.)