AMELIA: Blu-Ray (Fox Searchlight, 2009) Fox Home Entertainment
On July 2, 1937, aviatrix, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan officially departed the realm of living history, transformed into an enduring enigma and hypnotically appealing mythology. What became of Earhart and Noonan after the radio tower lost contact with them on the last leg of their transatlantic crossing, instantly became fodder for tabloid speculation and later, wildly revered legend. And while the latter half of the 20th and early start of the 21st centuries have been enamored in exploring one of the most bizarre vanishing acts of the last 100 years, all that is known – officially – and arguably, can ever be known, boils down to rank scholastic speculation. It’s a mystery – folks. That is precisely what makes it so compelling. Born in Atchison, Kansas, Earhart’ yen for adventure into the wild blue yonder became a reality first, in 1928, when she became the first female passenger to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Perhaps it was the elixir of her ‘celebrity’ that fascinated Earhart. Dissatisfied with merely watching the clouds sail by, Earhart would prove she had what it took to parlay this moment of fame into a memorable career, shocking the world by piloting her own plane in 1932 for a nonstop solo transatlantic flight. Interestingly, as her popularity exploded, her modesty evolved. Despite her participation in the aeronautics race, Earhart was mostly contented when she was alone in the skies – at one with herself and at peace with the world far below.
The movie version of those, as well as other events in Earhart's brief span on this earth, leading up to that fateful last length, never entirely live up to either the legend or legacy of Amelia Earhart - the woman, or even Earhart - the aviatrix. Instead, director, Mira Nair's Amelia (2009) is something of a casual, lugubrious tale of greatness snuffed out in its prime, yet without either a detailed character study of its protagonist or even to offer up a smattering of the monumental impact Earhart had on aviation history. In addition to starring in the picture, Hilary Swank took on the role of executive producer. Some of the movie was, in fact, shot in New York City. However, as a Canadian production, most of it actually took place in Toronto, Oshawa, Nova Scotia, Dunnville, and Niagara-on-the-Lake, with a few inserts lensed in South Africa. Swank, who underwent a stringent pilot-in-training course was not allowed to do her own flying in the movie, mostly for insurance reasons. Instead, pro-pilots, Jimmy Leeward and Bryan Regan flew, with CGI subbing in for the more daring aerial maneuvers. Employing research culled from several books on Earharts’s mysterious vanishing act, including biographies by Susan Butler, Mary Long and Mary S. Lovell, screenwriter, Ronald Bass authored seven drafts, one eventually to satisfy Gateway founder, Ted Waitt, who had funded expeditions in search of Earhart's aircraft and was, in fact, prepared and passionate to completely finance this movie. Alas, from here, the project was handed over to screenwriter, Anna Hamilton Phelan who did a complete rewrite that differed greatly in its approach to the material, excising virtually all of Bass’ dialogue borrowed from Earhart’s actual speeches, to re-invent situations and dialogue to satisfy her own dramatic license.
Thus, what remained was largely distilled into vignettes based on Butler and Lovell’s more detailed renderings in print. Whereas both books managed to retain a sense of Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank) as a woman of indomitable spirit and vigor, the watered-down movie accounts Earhart as a lovable buck-toothed misfit, out of step and out of time, until her life and love are skillfully tapped by publishing tycoon, George Putnam (Richard Gere). Told as a giant flashback, the story begins with Earhart and Noonan's (Christopher Eccleston) fateful flight. From here we are treated to the briefest glimpse of Earhart as a precocious child, obsessed with flying. The story jumps forward to the moment Earhart first meets Putnam - already a married man. Putnam proposes that Earhart be the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane. Naturally, the idea appeals to Earhart, until she learns she is merely to be a passenger. The pilots will be Slim Gordon (Aaron Abrams) and Bill (Joe Anderson); two macho flyers who have little faith in Earhart's abilities to navigate their journey. Earhart, however, refuses to give up. Arriving back in New York after their successful landing in Whales, Putnam engages his 'star' attraction for a series of guest lectures and public appearances that capitalize on her instant fame. He even encourages Earhart to write a book about her experience. Earhart, however, is ashamed of the rouse, and, shortly thereafter, sets off to prove her own mettle as the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic.
Her guts and gumption earn Earhart Putnam's deepest respect, and eventually, his love. Putnam divorces his wife and marries Earhart. However, at a house party, Earhart also meets Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), the future U.S. Federal Aviation Administrator. A divorced father with a young son, Gene falls madly for Earhart and the two begin a quiet romance under Putnam's watchful eye. Eventually, Earhart realizes she loves her husband more and returns to him, chaste and determined to be faithful evermore. Undaunted to complete one final flight circumnavigating the globe, Earhart's first attempt in Hawaii ends with fiery disillusionment as the plane's landing gear fails and snaps off on the runway. Making the necessary repairs, Earhart and Noonan choose to fly their Lockheed Electra, charting a flight course in reverse, thereby leaving the transpacific crossing to the end of their journey. But shortly after takeoff, radio transmissions between Earhart and the Coast Guard picket ship, Itasca reveal a looming crisis that cannot be resolved. Doomed, Earhart and Noonan fly into the clouds with the wind at their backs, a silent understanding between them, that this will be their final hours.
Amelia is hardly a perfect entertainment. And yet, there is so much that is good. Kudos go largely to Hilary Swank for her emblematic turn as Earhart. If only the script had been more articulate at fleshing out the character, we might have been privy to a truly fine performance. More than looking the part, Swank has the demeanor and intangible quality of Earhart’s entrepreneurial spirit coursing through her veins. The way she moves, a quick flash of the eyes or sudden turn of her head; these are Earhart-ian gestures not merely copied, but somehow assimilated by Swank into the very fiber of her being. The same cannot be said for Richard Gere's stiff performance as Putnam. Ewan McGregor is a fine actor, but he is given preciously little to do here except fawn over Swank’s rather butchy Earhart, and, attempt a mild confrontation with Putnam to win her affections. Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography captures much of the period glamour with freshness and, at times, beautifully composed shots that prefigure that classic era in picture-making, void of the MTV-styled chop-shop editing that afflicts far too many movies made today. Regrettably, Nair's direction is pedestrian at best. Even more unfortunate, the story never materializes as anything better than a Cole’s Notes version of what we do know about Earhart, prior to her untimely demise. And, while speculation endures, either that she crashed into a watery grave, or crash-landed on a nearby island, or perhaps, flew in a direction entirely off her originally scheduled flight plan, only to be taken alive and eaten by cannibals, etc. et al. the truth about Emilia Earhart will likely forever remain a grand mystery – unknown and unknowable for the ages.
20th Fox Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray transfer is quite stunning. The 2:35:1 widescreen image exhibits a rich palette of colors. At times, the image can be quite sharp, with sumptuously realized fine details. However, there are moments where the visual characteristic adopts a rather soft quality that this reviewer does not recall experiencing in the theatrical presentation of this film. On the whole, the quality of this disc will surely not disappoint. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, ideally complimenting this visual presentation. Extras include deleted scenes, vintage MovieTone newsreel footage and five featurettes on the making of the film, Earhart - the woman, and, the legacy of her journey into the abyss.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)