Amelia (review)

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Flying into the Sun

I want to see a movie about Amelia Earhart that is thrilling. That is Indiana Jones adventurous. Someday, I think, someone will make a movie like that about Earhart, about whom that kind of story is simply begging to be told. But that would be a fantasy in the opposite direction of the fantasy in which Mira Nair and screenwriters Ron Bass (Passion of Mind, Snow Falling on Cedars) and Anna Hamilton Phelan chose to take their Amelia. I wouldn’t, in fact, expect an Indiana Jones-type fantasy from Nair, whose movies are so intimate and personal that it’s as if they exist to let us see the world through the eyes of her protagonists, as they see themselves and not as how the world sees them.
And so this Amelia is a quiet, reflective film, and Earhart is not an icon or a symbol: she’s a human being, and the fantasy comes in how the film depicts her life and her achievements and everything about her not as something a woman did but something a person did. It’s a very feminist kind of fantasy, one I long to see more of, that — even if it’s not true! — women can just do what we do without having to fight every step of the way against barriers that have to do with our gender, without having to worry about what we do being compared to what other women might do, without it having to mean anything other than what it is.

Which isn’t to say that the very real strides for women that Earhart made weren’t important or should be ignored. But she didn’t live her life in order to make feminist statements: she lived her life to live her life. She flew because she loved to fly. She wanted to fly around the world not because no woman had ever done it before because no person had ever done it.

And which isn’t to suggest, either, that Amelia — based on the books East to the Dawn by Susan Butler [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] and The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] — completely ignores some of the bullshit Earhart faced in the brief, ten-year career as a flyer the film covers. But those things are asides, like how, after her first transatlantic flight, she got dubbed “Lady Lindy,” as if she weren’t a real aviator but merely a cute approximation of one, an adjunct to a real aviator. They’re not what concerns our Earhart here, played with serene poise by Hilary Swank (P.S. I Love You, The Reaping). She worries about technical things — like why one plane she’s asked to command wastes weight with unnecessary gear for water landings. One of my favorite moments may be when, during her first solo transatlantic flight, when things are getting a little dicey, she bucks herself up by telling herself, “If Lindbergh did it, you can do it.” There’s no doubt in her mind that she’s a pilot — not a “women pilot,” just a pilot, full stop.

The film opens in the middle of Earhart’s famous around-the-world flight, with gorgeous midair images of her beautiful, shiny Lockheed Electra airplane soaring over stunning African landscapes. And with Gabriel Yared’s haunting score reminiscent of John Barry’s for Out of Africa, I found myself thinking — hoping! — that Amelia might be a movie like that one, so utterly unapologetic about a woman who lived life on her own terms that the notion that there might be anything to apologize for doesn’t even appear to cross its mind. And, indeed, that is how Amelia plays out, not just in her flying but in her life on the ground, too. The movie consists, mostly, of a series of flashbacks covering the ten years prior to that historical circumnavigation, when she has affairs with the publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere: I’m Not There, The Hunting Party) — who invents her in the eyes of the media — but to whom she is wary of making any “medieval” vows of faithfulness, and with the aviator Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor: Angels & Demons, Cassandra’s Dream), too, who shares her passion for flying. She doesn’t hesitate to love both men at the same time, and you can have all the debates you want over the rightness or wrongness or the fairness or the unkindness of what she did — is it “cheating” when you’ve made no bones about your lack of desire for exclusive loyalty? — but this was who she was. And this is what the film gives us: her idea of autonomy and independence that is so intrinsic to who she is that there is no question about it in the film’s mind.

That — the assumption of autonomy, whether your idea of autonomy is the same — is a luxury rarely accorded to women in our pop culture, and it is wonderful to see here.

Another rarity: the men in her life treat her as an equal. I don’t know how it was for the real Earhart, whether she had a constant uphill battle for respect that still today many women face, but here, in Amelia, it’s just a given that she is not someone to be condescended to. And that may be a fantasy, too, but I don’t care — we need to see more depictions not only of women who are strong and sure and inherently worthy of respect but of others instinctively treating them that way as well. Another of my favorite scenes features a conversation between Earhart and her navigator on the round-the-world attempt, Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising), as they prepare for the final leg of their journey on New Guinea. The conversation isn’t about navigation: he propositions her. The tone of how the scene plays out is refreshing in that it’s not about power or dominance or any of the other bullshit that films — and real life, sometimes, too — often superimpose on such a moment.

In fact, a lot of what’s so amazing about Amelia is what isn’t there. There’s no “statement” about what a rebel Earhart was, and that’s wonderful. Earhart was not a conventional woman, not in any sense of the word, but of course to herself she was just herself — rebels don’t think they’re rebels, they just are who they are. That’s a whole extra level of freedom that goes unspoken: if Earhart cared that she wasn’t living life by the “rules,” there’s no evidence of it here. She barely seems to notice that there are “rules”… and when it comes to the actual, technical, aviation side of things, there aren’t many rules at all.

Some people find that kind of freedom scary — What would we do if no one told us what to do? — but Amelia finds the romance in it. There was a time, the film reminds us, when you could just do this, fly across the Atlantic, fly around the world, just hop in a plane and go. Airport security? Secure airspace? Air traffic control? Hell, there weren’t any airports — you just landed in field in Ireland and scared the sheep. There’s no opportunity like this anymore (although, see The Astronaut Farmer, for the next possible round). There is a freedom that this Earhart, this Amelia embodies that women and men alike should envy… though not many people seem to find much joy in that kind of freedom at all.

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Sat, Oct 24, 2009 7:04pm

Wow. I so can’t wait to see this, especially with my aerospace-engineer girlfriend. B) Glad it’s as good as it looks.

Sun, Oct 25, 2009 12:26pm

“Amelia” was one of the longest 2hrs. at the movies I can recall in a long time. Hilary Swank and Richard Gere can’t miss? I’m afraid they didn’t knock us out. It was not terribly introspective, either. It kind of clumsily meandered along and we were waiting for it to get started. I wasn’t looking for bombs bursting in air, but it was boring. I thought that both Swank and Gere were nowhere near their best form. We were hoping for a thrilling movie and were pretty disappointed. Such a wonderful woman and this blah movie. Makes no sense. One positive: Hilary Swank does well despite the blah vehicle. The movie was beautiful looking.

Sun, Oct 25, 2009 1:13pm

Hilary Swank and Richard Gere can’t miss?

Who said that? Did I? Or are you responding to another review?

Sun, Oct 25, 2009 8:19pm

Very well written review and I loved the movie by the way. In fact I’m planning to go watch it again, in a few hours :)

Mon, Oct 26, 2009 11:07am

I so want to see it, and am excited by your review, since so many of the other reviews mirror Brian’s.

Ok, fangirl moment. How much screen time does CE have?
(I wonder if this is the first time CE and McGregor have worked together since Shallow Grave?)

Mon, Oct 26, 2009 10:51pm

CE is onscreen very little, and he and McGregor do not appear together at all. It seems extremely unlikely that they would have met at all during the course of production. Sorry.

Tue, Oct 27, 2009 3:18pm

Thanks for taking the time to answer fangirl questions…