The great women of the 20th century deserve better than what they’ve been getting from 21st century female filmmakers.
Anne Fontaine’s recent “Coco Before Chanel” seemed more interested in the legendary designer’s romantic exploits than in her boldness of vision, and now Mira Nair’s “Amelia” drains the life out of trailblazing aviator Amelia Earhart in a movie that feels like an afterschool special about a great American.
Hilary Swank — trying desperately to sound like Katharine Hepburn in “Christopher Strong” but sounding like she’s just struggling with her prosthetic teeth — plays Earhart with all the freckle-faced, pants-wearing, short-haired gumption she can muster. The film uses Earhart’s 1937 attempt to circumnavigate the globe as its through-line, cutting to one flashback after another.
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There’s not much discussion of what drove this pioneer to tackle the skies in an era where such pursuits were considered to be for men only; we see a 12-year-old Amelia look wide-eyed as a vintage prop plane takes flight, and then bam, there’s Swank soaring among the clouds in a WWI biplane.
The aerial footage is breathtaking, whether Earhart is flying over the African veldt, a Kansas farm or the night skies over Washington. (Less successful are the shots from inside planes and cars; you can see the line around people’s heads in poorly-composited shots filmed in front of a green screen.)
Over the course of Earhart’s life, we see her fall in love with and marry publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere) and pursue an affair with aviation expert Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), who’s most famous these days as the father of author Gore Vidal.
Gere and McGregor are fine actors, but Nair uses them like the expendable males (Zachary Scott, Franchot Tone, et al) who stood back and let Bette Davis and Joan Crawford do all the heavy lifting back in the day.
Gere brings his trademark naughty twinkle to the role — with a dollop of Pepperidge Farm–flavored New England accent on top — but he and Swank have all the romantic chemistry of two people forced to share a table at a luncheonette during the noon rush.
Part of what made Amelia Earhart such a fascinating figure was how atypical she was for her time, but Nair doesn’t seem very interested in establishing any sort of context for her. We see one soup line, but that’s as much as the movie cares about the Great Depression, and there are very few times that anyone ever challenges Earhart on her flouting of the wife-and-mother paradigm of the era. It’s hard work standing up against societal expectations, but the movie pretends like Earhart’s flouting of convention and gender norms were just a walk in the park.
When Gene Vidal first meets Amelia, he’s amused by the native Kansan’s use of the word “hooey” in conversation. Judging by the final product, the writers of “Amelia” must have taped that word on the wall above their laptops, because this movie drips with it.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.