Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January, we look back at the multi-faceted career of Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, whose textured works expertly thread social, cultural, and narrative borders. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Certain movies have a kind of insubstantial quality to them. They aren’t poorly made or badly acted but they nonetheless feel feather-light, as though they barely existed moments after you turn off the credits. Amelia is such a film.
The opening well sets the stage for the kind of movie that is to come. Over shots of a plane in flight, Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank) waxes philosophically about flying and her love for it. The script, written by Ronald Bass and then revised by Anna Hamilton Phelan—who apparently took the structure and emphasized different aspects of Earhart than Bass’s seven drafts—mixes Earhart’s own words with their take on her thoughts. I’m not entirely sure if the opening voiceover is from her writings or not, but it feels like the sort of thing one would write in a journal or letter. Poetic in its way on the page but inert when spoken. Honest in writing, empty sentiment in the mouth.
The film forces Swank, time and again, to communicate in this manner. While she does fine with conveying Earhart’s emotions, she rarely can breathe life into the ponderous dialogue handed to her. Earhart, a rebellious obsessive with an active distaste for societal convention, ends up feeling flat in practice as a result. Swank hints at the edges where the aviatrix’s spark might have been, but that’s all the movie will give her. Phelan herself said she found the pilot a bit boring and difficult to bring to life and the evidence of that is clear on the screen.
Richard Gere, by contrast, gets a far less restrictive burden to carry with portraying George Putnam, Earhart’s promoter and eventual husband. Early on, especially, he gives Putnam a self-aware slyness. Putnam’s a carnival barker in a nice suit, and Gere makes sure we know the character is very aware of it. It isn’t a meaty part despite the second billing, but Gere does use it to add a little color to Amelia.
There could have been something there, with Swank playing Earhart as an important but nonetheless bland figure and Gere as her flashier, more charismatic second banana, but the two never feel in sync. Save for a brief moment of passion on their wedding night, their chemistry never materializes. The stars seem to be acting past one another, not connecting. One could argue that their romance was one of convenience and thus this lack of heat makes sense, but the film can never really bring itself around to representing that view. It seems to, in part, buy into these two as very real and truly in love.
Swank’s Earhart doesn’t generate much spark with her other love interest, Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), either. They share a love of flight and an elevator makeout, it’s true, but the movie can’t quite roll that into a convincing love triangle. The closest we ever get to any kind of romantic connection or longing comes when Earhart notices an attractive woman while with Vidal. As Amelia’s one nod to the flyer’s probable queerness, Swank does a great job filling the scene with a sort of awkward lust. You can feel her trying to stuff the comments back in her mouth but too overwhelmed by the spark of infatuation to stop herself. Alas, the film will never recapture this one moment of humanity for Earhart.
There is no sense that we were just inside that plane. It could be stock footage for all the emotion it evokes.
Dwelling on this may seem odd given that Earhart’s place in history, but this movie is more about relationships than historic events. Part of this may be that Nair seems to struggle with bringing a pulse to the action inside the cockpit. During an early flying scene, Earhart is nearly tossed out an open door. However, the scene wholly lacks suspense. Swank’s body is approximately half out the door, but pulling herself back in seems to take little physical effort and leave even less emotional strain. The camera placement only makes things worse as we can see little outside the open door. With the character never seeming to be in true danger and a lack of a background to tell us how high above the world they are, the whole thing feels perfunctory, not exhilarating or death-defying. This lack of excitement extends throughout the movie. Even her apparent death plays as largely emotionally neutral.
Other times, Nair and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh set the camera directly in front of Earhart as she flies. This gives Swank plenty of time to convey anxiety and frustration through small facial expressions as she checks and rechecks the radio, but denies the film a sense of scope. When the scene does move outside the cabin to show us the plane in the sky, it feels disconnected. There’s no sense that we were just inside that plane. It could be stock footage for all the emotion it evokes.
All of this makes Amelia an outlier in Nair’s filmography. Her work is typically marked by thoughtful portrayals of relationships and visually rich cinematography. Even in her lesser films—Kama Sutra, for example—Mira treats us to sumptuous visuals and an appreciation of sensuous connections between people. In Amelia, neither of those elements feels present. It seems as though, in her most American movie, Nair sublimated her most welcome elements.
Amelia is available to stream on the Starz Network now as well as available for purchase in physical media and for rent from several online outlets.