Thursday, December 9, 2010

Amelia (Avalon, Searchlight, 20th Century-Fox, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Amelia, the 2009 biopic of famed 1930’s aviatrix Amelia Earhart directed by (East) Indian filmmaker Mira Nair and starring Hilary Swank as Earhart and Richard Gere as her promoter, sponsor, publisher (of her best-selling memoirs of her flights) and ultimately husband, George Putnam. Written by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan based on two, count ’em, two Earhart biographies — Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn and Mary S. Lovell’s The Sound of WingsAmelia was savaged by critics as too slow, too ponderous, too reverential, and between the lousy reviews and the who-cares factor (for all the aviation buffs who still get together and debate what exactly happened to Earhart on that last, doomed flight around the world — neither her body nor the wreckage of her plane were ever found and that’s only fueled the mystery — today’s average young, youth-oriented moviegoer probably couldn’t have cared less about the life of someone who died in 1937) the film bombed at the box office.

Well, that was a fate it decidedly didn’t deserve: like Australia (are films with one-word titles that both begin and end with the letter “a” simply jinxed?), Amelia, if not exactly a deathless masterpiece, was both a vividly entertaining movie and a film of substance, at once a tribute to its subject (a woman defying gender expectations and triumphing in what was then — and largely still is — considered a man’s world), a fascinating meditation on the cult of celebrity and the whole notion of public relations and how stars are manufactured, and an intriguing romantic triangle between Earhart, Putnam and Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), father of Gore Vidal (who appears as a boy in the dramatis personae — how unusual it is to see a biopic about someone who died in 1937 which features a character who’s still very much alive!), with whom she seemed able to escape the bizarre celebrity Putnam had constructed around her and she had gone along with because he had persuaded her (probably correctly) that it was the only way he could get the financing to do the one thing she wanted to do most, which was fly.

Amelia is a first-rate movie all around: handsomely produced (the 1930’s seemed credibly re-created — though some of the rooms and hotel lobbies seemed incredibly overstuffed by comparison with those shown in the actual movies of the period), vividly directed and impeccably acted. Nair was faulted by those stupid critics for going for poetic effects (including long stretches of narration in Earhart’s own voice) at the expense of thrills, but her staging of the flying sequences is marvelously suspenseful and reproduces the way long-distance aviation, like police work, is a lot of boredom occasionally punctuated by desperate crises — and the sequences showing the flyers in genuine peril (particularly a series of shots of Earhart’s first transatlantic trip in 1928 in which first one of her male co-pilots and then Earhart herself nearly fall out of the plane) are as viscerally exciting and effectively dramatized as one would want.

Hilary Swank, who’s always at her best at roles that transgress gender roles and rules — the Transgender person in Boys Don’t Cry, the aspiring boxer in Million Dollar Baby, the polymorphously perverse prostitute in The Black Dahlia — is virtually ideal casting; at times she looks less like the real Earhart than like Doris Day, freckles and all (suggesting that Day would have been excellent casting for an Earhart biopic if one had been made in the 1950’s), and she manages to command all the character’s conflicting emotions: the love of adventure and risk, the disinclination to be held down to one man (she makes a rather stilted speech to that effect to Putnam when he proposes to her) or one set of expectations, and her rather prickly acquiescence to the star-making machinery Putnam builds to promote and exploit her.

Gere and McGregor play their roles adequately — though Gere’s part seems all too blatantly compounded of movies he’s made before, particularly his best-known credits, Pretty Woman and Chicago — but the actor who stands out among the supporting players is Christopher Eccleston (who was John Lennon in that recent BBC-TV biopic about him, Lennon Naked) as Fred Noonan, the brilliant but alcoholic navigator Earhart took on her doomed last flight: his performance is a sorrowful portrait of a man brilliant at navigation but in over his head at life (change the word “navigation” to “music” and that could have described Lennon as well, at least as he was portrayed in the script Eccleston performed, but he etches the two characters completely differently and he’s a first-rate actor in both films).

Amelia isn’t flawless — Nair and the writers decided to build it as a series of flashbacks with her last flight as the spine, and she cuts so jarringly between past and present it’s not always that easy to tell when we are (a continuing source of irritation for me in modern movies — for every modern-day director like Pedro Almodóvar who actually knows how to do flashbacks and still keep us oriented in time, there seem to be at least 10 out there who feel compelled to try and simply can’t manage it), and at times the self-conscious “poetic” style of the voice-over narration given to Swank to speak in character does begin to pall, but this is such a good movie I’m willing to forgive it its minor flaws, especially the way the critics unfairly savaged it. It seems that a woman director can be accepted as long as her films are safely about male issues and virtually all-male in their dramatis personae — witness Kathryn Bigelow winning the first Academy Award for a female director for The Hurt Locker, a movie that not only has just one even slightly significant female character but has the (male) lead turn his back on her at the end and go back to his buddies and his war — but let a woman director make a movie about an independent and courageous woman, especially from a position of honesty about how the only way she was allowed to pursue her dreams was to allow herself to be manipulated by men, and the Hollywood authorities (who are far less liberal and more racist, sexist and homophobic than they like to pretend) will come down on her and trash her and her movie.