Amelia stalls out on the runway as a Hilary Swank vehicle

Mira Nair's Amelia Earhart biopic shows practically no interest in aviation

It’s difficult to imagine that Amelia would exist if Hilary Swank didn't already have two Best Actress Oscars and a striking resemblance to the toothy, tomboyish Amelia Earhart. Director Mira Nair offers a sleek but perfunctory biopic of the famed aviatrix that seems driven more by an ambition for Academy Awards than any real interest in Earhart’s accomplishments.

Rarely does a film that so clearly admires its subject also make her look so bad. Nair mostly seems intrigued by Earhart as a 1930s feminist role model and celebrity. Thanks to her publisher, promoter, and eventual husband George Putman (Richard Gere), Earhart parlays her fame as “Lady Lindy” into speaking engagements and advertising deals. Amelia nearly suggests that Earhart was little more than a show horse with modest aviation talent. The film emphasizes her missteps more than her achievements. For instance, Earhart commanded her first transatlantic flight, but didn't actually fly the plane. There’s an unintentionally hilarious moment during the journey when the aircraft hits some turbulence and Earhart almost falls through an unlocked door.

Unbelievably, Amelia shows only a superficial interest in the pioneering risks of early 20th-century aviation. The flight scenes emphasize dull close-ups of Swank concentrating hard when things look grim, then whooping for joy when she reaches her goal. Any filmmaker would face a steep challenge in dramatizing the activities of an airplane pilot, but Nair scarcely bothers to re-create the tensions and sensory experience of Earhart’s flights.

Earhart was born in 1897, six years before the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk. You’d think her attraction to the nascent, dangerous endeavor would provide the film with a wealth of material, but Amelia barely conveys what attracted her to air travel in the first place. She occasionally blathers press release-worthy generalities about “wanting to be free,” and a brief flashback shows her gaping at a small plane as a young girl in Kansas. Otherwise, we learn nothing of her life or early flying career before meeting Putnam in 1928.

Swank delivered wrenching, naturalistic performances in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, but isn’t really a Hollywood glamour queen and seems stranded in Nair’s glossy period piece. The film pays close attention to Earhart’s gradual romance and marriage to Putnam, and her attraction to aristocratic aviation teacher Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), but the relationship issues only play out like a soap opera. When Earhart takes Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones) for a flight, the moment of sisterly solidarity doesn’t drive the plot.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh renders the ritzy 1930s locales in a brilliant sheen, and the fly-bys of African landscapes almost make up for the sequences' lack of suspense. Nair’s re-creation of the last leg of Earhart’s final flight finds some dramatic interest in emergency air-traffic procedures, but it’s too little, too late. Rather than achieve liftoff, Amelia only taxis down the runway before returning to the gate.