Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Amelia" Lacks Excitement; How Is That Possible?

Part of the allure of the Amelia Earhart story is the mystery of how it ended. World-renowned as the first successful female aviator, she attempted to circle the globe in 1937, but her flight vanished somewhere over (or in?) the Pacific Ocean just as she was about to finish the last leg of her journey. I love bios, especially those with a good mystery attached, so I entered the theater drooling with anticipation. I left the theatre needing a poke in the ribs from my wife to stay awake. How did this happen? One can lay the blame on director Mira Nair's unimaginative direction, Hilary Swank's acting, and a script that does not even attempt to speculate on what became of Amelia's last flight.

Hilary Swank's impersonation of Earhart is dead-on (no pun intended). She looks, acts, and speaks like the real Amelia...so much so that I was diverted by it several times during the film. I mean, I thought I was watching a resurrection of Earhart rather than an interpretation of her life. In other words, Swank's mechanics are impeccable, but they dominate the performance to the point that the viewer comes away wondering what Earhart was really like. Somehow Swank did not capture the elan and verve of Earhart. There was no soul in the machine.

Nair makes the same mistake. She touches all the bases of Earhart's life without hitting a home run. All the dates, times, names, and places are accurate, but it adds up to not much more than a National Geographic special. I didn't feel anything for the characters and their plights.

But all this could have be redeemed by a boffo ending. They couldn't screw that up, right? Earhart's fate has been the subject of innumerable theories and wild conjecture for over 70 years. Hundreds of books, articles, and essays have been written about her death. All of them trying to solve the mystery in an original way. There was no dearth of material from which the director and writer could choose. Some say Amelia and Fred Noonan (her co-pilot) landed safely on a remote Pacific island and lived there for years. Some say the Japanese captured and tortured and imprisoned them during World War II. Some say the flight just vanished into thin air, a victim of a South Pacific/Bermuda triangle. Whatever happened, no trace of the plane was ever found despite a massive search. So how did the film deal with all this? It ignored it entirely. The movie ends without an ending. Amelia is running low on fuel and people look worried, but no conclusion is drawn. Credits come up, and hopes crash.

Like the life and last flight of its eponymous heroine, "Amelia" is unfinished business.

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