Even when they condense, simplify, and outright falsify details in the service of tidy narrative structure, biopics require at least a smidgen of insight into their chosen subjects. But don’t tell that to Mira Nair, whose Amelia attempts the yeoman’s task of recounting a tale about which it has virtually nothing to say. To list the myriad ways in which Nair’s portrait of Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank) errs on the side of shallow glibness would be to exert more analytical energy than Nair and screenwriters Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan (working from two separate biographies) have put into their story. Told in flashback fragments from her doomed 1937 last flight, the film refuses to contextualize Earhart’s dreams and accomplishments either in terms of societal gender roles or aeronautical history, instead merely explaining the origins of her mania for flying with a cursory bit of narration (along the lines of “I saw a plane, and knew that’s what I wanted to do!”). Most of the effort, however, is spent depicting her relationship with her publicist, George Putnam (Richard Gere), whom she refuses to wholly commit to (gotta be free as a bird!), then marries, then cheats on with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor)—prompting little Gore (William Cuddy) to oh-so-preciously ask her why she can’t be married to both George and Gene—and then finally devotes herself out of guilt for being unfaithful.
Nair shoots her herky-jerky saga handsomely but, as with her frequent cinematographic dalliances alongside cloud-traversing planes, with zero passion. In those aerial views, Gabriel Yared’s persistently swooning orchestral score does the heavy lifting when it comes to conveying the thrill of flight. However, it’s a futile endeavor—a sense of euphoric freedom fails to materialize—and there’s never more than minimal weight to the proceedings, which address Earhart’s feminist icon status via a few young girls expressing admiration for her feats.
Also bogging down the action are flat lead performances that substitute decorous period clothes and inconsistent northeastern accents (Swank’s sub-Hepburn drawl proving a constant distraction) for fleshed-out feeling and motivation, as well as a celebrity-over-talent angle that remains undeveloped. Swank’s fondness for tomboyish roles continues here, but the actress stumbles in trying to convincingly strike a balance between Earhart’s appropriation of masculine traits (short hair, pants, brusque talk) and supposed hetero-romanticism. This is in part because Nair is too interested in dapper attire and lousy front-page newspaper montages than in characterization or interpersonal drama. But mainly, it’s because, from hurried intro to feebly conjecturing finale, Amelia doesn’t seem to have a clue about who Earhart really was.