Jumping Through Hoops
“I’m a flyer, that’s all, pursuing my passion for the fun of it.” Accused of greed, egoism, and proto-feminist ambitions, Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank) defends herself by insisting that she only wants to soar in the sky and leave behind earthly concerns, like tending to boyfriends and appeasing husbands and, oh, paying the rent. Though she doesn’t quite stamp her foot when she makes her pronouncement, Amelia here appears both grandly romantic and shortsighted, so focused on what she thinks she wants that she doesn’t pay much attention to how she might achieve it.
That more practical part of Earhart’s sensational and famously brief career is left in Amelia to her husband George Putnam (Richard Gere) and boyfriend Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor)—who brings along his young son Gore (William Cuddy), more a name-drop than a character. The boys provide structure of a most tedious sort. GP is a book publisher who wholly embraces the “new field” of PR in order to finance his wife’s escapades and oh yes make some money too. In the movie’s imagining, the marriage is a mix of commercial and carnal interests. She is apparently so reluctant to marry him, despite their ostensible but strangely invisible mutual attraction, that after the wedding she tearfully writes and reads to him a letter that begins, “I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.” More energetically, George builds a mini-Amelia-industry, premised on her product endorsements (she has her own luggage and fashion lines, and shills for Kodak and Lucky Strikes), books, and public appearances. Her own qualms about this scheme (again, delivered tearfully), is as peculiar as the speech on marriage: “Here I am jumping through hoops like a white horse.”
Amelia’s colorful phrasing, drawn from her letters and books, suggests she had something of an inflated view of herself. And no wonder. The movie provides only a cursory look at Earhart’s commercialization, more a way to delineate her marriage troubles than investigate her own warped (or deep?) self-image or her treatment as a pop star. But this seems a missed opportunity (or a clumsy approach to the problem of American celebrity), for after all, this is the movie’s subtext: Amelia, lovely and lost, forever young and stubborn, remains a perfect blank screen for all kinds of projections.
Such imagining leads to the “other man” noted here, Gene. For all the drama suggested by the trailers for Amelia, the film does precious little with this affair or his supposed the supposed role as “great love of her life.” Whatever happens between them, emotionally or sexually, is decidedly off-screen (she spends more intimate time with Gore, soothing him after a nightmare). Just how and when they rendezvous—or when she has time to write him a very flowery love note that for some incomprehensible reason she keeps at home so GP can find it, and so, weep so-dramatically on discovering her betrayal)—remains completely unclear. Indeed, their relationship is pretty much reduced to a set of business transactions, having to do with his commercial airline ventures and her efforts to encourage women pilots.
These efforts might seem a useful point of departure for Mira Nair’s movie, which opens and closes with oddly banal images of the ocean and sky, alluding to Amelia’s last flight in 1937 and enduring mystery. But aside from an anomalous scene where Amelia takes Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones) up in her plane for a nighttime excursion over a blinking-lit city, Amelia pays scant attention to her encouragements to others and aspirations for a movement. (This scene with Eleanor is also, by the way, the most sensual one in the film: while the girls sit up front, GP pops champagne with boys in the back, and Eleanor positively trembles with excitement, exclaiming “Dear god!” as she places her white-gloved hands on the wheel; suffice it to say that you’re left wishing this was the movie’s focus.)
Amelia says again and again (and again) how much she loves to look out the plane window and travel the world, and the movie certainly underscores the thrill she feels during her adventures, with repeated shots of billowing clouds, dazzling mountains, and rolling plains, as well as more than a few touchdowns, where she waves and smiles with ruddy-cheeked sheep farmers and dark-skinned tribes-people. The similarity of these moments is daunting, in the sense that they are (surprisingly) unimaginative, generic adventure-movie gestures that grant little insight into this particular woman’s psyche, drive or character. If only, if only Amelia had been less literal-minded and less devoted to episodic chronology, and more open to pursing some “passion.”