Flying into the Sun: 'Amelia' soars in Mira Nair adaptation.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
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 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, but because no person had ever done it.
Which isn’t to suggest, either, that Amelia – based on the books East to the Dawn by Susan Butler and The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell – completely ignores some of the bullshit Earhart faced in the brief, 10-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. 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 trans-Atlantic 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 “woman 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 10 years prior to that historical circumnavigation, when she has affairs with the publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere) – 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), 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.
AMELIA (3 ½) • Directed by Mira Nair • Starring Hilary Swank, Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor • Rated PG • 111 min • At Maya Cinemas, Osio Cinemas.