[Screen It]

(2009) (Hilary Swank, Richard Gere) (PG)

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Drama: A female aviator of the 1920s and '30s attempts to set various flying records, including traveling solo across the Atlantic and then around the world.
It's 1928 and a year since Charles Lindbergh has made the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Publisher George Putnam (RICHARD GERE) is working for the owner of an airplane who's given up on doing the same herself, and instead wants another woman to make the flight. George sets his sights on 31-year-old pilot Amelia Earhart (HILARY SWANK), who's made a name for herself in the world of aviation, but he knows he can make her famous with this flight.

The only issue for her is that she'll just be a glorified passenger, with a male pilot and navigator doing the actual work. Nevertheless, she goes along with the plan and indeed becomes the most famous female aviator in the world. As the years pass, however, and with George and Amelia becoming an item and eventually a married couple, she wants to keep pushing the boundaries. That not only includes via various flying feats, but also by having an open marriage where she carries on an affair with West Point flying instructor Gene Vidal (EWAN McGREGOR).

After a failed earlier attempt, Amelia then sets out in 1937 to become the first woman to fly around the world. With the aid of celestial navigator Fred Noonan (CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON) who accompanies her on the various legs of the flight, the groundbreaking aviator lifts off in hopes of accomplishing her goal, all while her husband worries from afar and hopes that she'll return to him safely.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
If you really think about, the history of powered human flight is quite amazing in terms of what was achieved in a considerably short amount of time. From the moment Orville and Wilbur Wright briefly went airborne along the beach in North Carolina to Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, a bit more than a mere 65 years had passed.

Of course, various milestones were accomplished along the way between those two significant events. In 1947, Chuck Yeager was the first person to break the speed of sound. Two decades earlier, Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. And just five years after that, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to do the same.

The event that forever cemented her in the American psyche of older generations, however, was her disappearance near the end of her 1937 attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world. Without any sort of concrete evidence, no one will ever know exactly what occurred, but that didn't stop the theories (some legitimate, others quite wild) from sprouting up or even recent attempts to figure out what became of the famous, ground (or should that be air) breaking, and beloved aviator.

While related films and TV shows about Earhart have come and gone over the decades since her last fateful flight, she's now suddenly back in vogue in 2009. This past summer, she was portrayed by Amy Adams in the purposefully non-realistic second installment of the "Night at the Museum" film series. She now gets the more serious treatment in the simply titled "Amelia," a well-intentioned but fairly boring and uninvolving biopic that simply doesn't pick up enough speed to lift off, let alone have enough air under (okay, actually over) its wings to stay aloft.

It's not a horrible offering, just an incredibly mediocre one that ends up shortchanging the pioneer and her amazing story. Which is all the more surprising is that writers Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan based their screenplay on not one but two books about the aviator. Granted, it's hard to compress a legendary figure's life into a two or so hour movie, but so much has been left out that this feels like a secondary Cliffs Notes version of the initial Cliffs Notes installment about Earhart.

Spanning the years between 1928 and 1937, the scribes and director Mira Nair do various fly-bys over some significant moments in the woman's life. They include meeting publisher and eventual husband George Putnam (Richard Gere), having a fling with West Point flying instructor Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), briefly interacting with other female pilots of the day, not to mention Eleanor Roosevelt and, of course, her various attempts at making aviation history via several challenging, daunting and potentially dangerous flights.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers only skim across the surface of those events, with the only depth supposedly coming from Amelia (played by Hilary Swank in a physically amazing doppelganger style) describing her philosophy and mindset, mostly via voice-over narration as well as some occasional interactive dialogue. I have no idea if the words are historically accurate or not, but as coupled with the "soaring" score, various symbolic cloud and other aerial shots as well as other potentially sappy elements, they come off sounding like bad screenwriting.

While Swank might bear an uncanny resemblance to the real woman (thanks to genetics as well as make-up and hair styling), she can't do much with the portrayal beyond superficially hitting various key points, all due to the script leaving her flying solo and without enough character fuel to complete the flight.

Reading about the real life of this woman, there are so many interesting elements about her and her endeavors. Yet, little of that's conveyed with any degree of range, and much is simply skipped, including her early years (save for a cursory flashback view of her as a girl watching her father fly), a failed engagement, and her flying details before 1928.

Some viewers may state they have no interest in seeing the film since they already know how it ends. That's somewhat of a valid argument, but a good storyteller can manage to keep audiences interested if they're engaged from start to obvious finish (e.g. James Cameron and "Titanic"). Nair somewhat manages to make the ending of this tale interesting, but that could just stem from our anticipation of how she might interpret what occurred.

Alas, the filmmaker plays it safe and doesn't wing it (sorry, couldn't resist), meaning the whole affair (as well as the included romantic affair contained within) unnecessarily feels grounded. When compared to something like Scorsese's terrific "The Aviator" (about Howard Hughes with similar goals in the same era), this offering feels like a balsa model compared to the real thing. It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 21, 2009 / Posted October 23, 2009

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