“Amelia” Crashes and Burns

I had a bad feeling about “Amelia.” When I saw the trailer for this film, I couldn’t help but notice how cliché it looked and how it literally screamed out, “Nominate me for Oscars!” That being said, I hoped that director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake”) would make an honest and thoughtful biopic of Amelia Earhart. Unfortunately, she couldn’t — but it’s not entirely her fault.

It’s amazing how much damage a bad script can do to a film. Almost everything wrong in this film arises from its disappointing script, and because of that “Amelia” stays on the runway instead of taking off.

It is 1937, and female aviator Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank), along with her flight navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), is planning to fly around the world. In vignettes, the film explores the many events in her life before that very moment: her flight across the Atlantic, her relationship with publishing tycoon and husband George Putnam (Richard Gere), her notorious affair with pilot Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) — the father of eventually famous writer Gore Vidal (William Cuddy) — and how she captured the hearts of the American people.

Unfortunately, the structure of “Amelia” is nothing new at all. The film’s narrative shifts back and forth between present and past, even though a chronological narrative would be better suited for the film. With this all-too-familiar organization and awkward transitions, the film becomes dull very quickly.

“Amelia” fails to entertain because everything is jumbled together into an incoherent mess. The film often leapfrogs from one event to another so quickly that not only does it lose focus, it nearly makes these events irrelevant. At many times I had to ask myself, “What exactly is going on? Am I supposed to care?” Although the film tries to take off in the last ten minutes through a tense sequence of Earhart’s final flight, by then it is already at the end of the runway.

The dialogue is, for lack of a better word, deplorable. Earhart’s voiceovers in flashback sequences sound as if they were written for an elementary school book, with her first narration starting with the words, “When I was a little girl.” The characters speak in corny one-liners, like when Gene says to Earhart, “You really are more beautiful than in the pictures.” The conversations are literally pulled out of a B-grade flick and are enough to put audiences straight to sleep. However, some apt dialogue pops up now and then, and it’s a shame such clever dialogue doesn’t occur more often.

Who is Amelia Earhart? The film pounds words like “feminist,” “heroine” and “visionary” into my head, but I never get to know who she was. That is “Amelia’s” fatal flaw as a biographical film — its lack of character depth. After watching Amelia, all I learned about this legendary woman are her accomplishments and her love life. While her achievements are important, Earhart’s character ought be the main focus of the film. Thus, the film provides the basic facts of her life without tapping into her spirit — a lot like a history textbook.

With the lack of character depth, “Amelia’s” cast fails to deliver the performances that the film needs. It’s a shame, since Swank is virtually the spitting image of Earhart herself. Though Swank adopts Earhart’s mannerisms and smile, she never completely communicates what it means to be Earhart.

In addition, Gere certainly has charisma, but the problem with his performance is that he has practically zero chemistry with Swank; they communicate with those hackneyed one-liners and their romance is rushed and unconvincing. McGregor and Eccleston act considerably well but are unjustly underused, with both of them being in the film for only ten minutes.

Thankfully, “Amelia” succeeds as a visual experience. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh successfully adapts Earhart’s feelings, as the camera captures the freedom, grandeur and thrill she undergoes while flying miles above the earth. The period detail is commendable, with the quaint costumes and sleek planes reminiscing the lifestyle and sensation of the 1920s and 30s.

“Amelia” is ultimately a film about historical events rather than a biopic of Amelia Earhart. Despite the sweeping cinematography and attention to period detail, the poorly written script causes so much harm that not only is the film lifeless, there’s nothing to learn about the woman herself.