If I were to give you a quiz on Amelia Earhart right now, how well would you do? Probably not so well, unless you are a female pilot or someone interested in the pop culture of the early 20th Century. Everyone knows Earhart disappears during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe, probably ending up dead, possibly getting sucked into a time vortex, considering no remains were ever found.
If director Mira Nair and writers Anna Hamilton Phelan and Ron Bass decided to take the “sucked into the sixth season of Lost” crazy theory about Amelia’s death, this movie might have ended on a high note. It would have left me confused, but highly entertained instead of the reality: me, left bored and hungry after a boring film.
Amelia is beautifully shot and features a fantastic, possibly Oscar-worthy performance from Hilary Swank as the titular Earhart. The production used a real, polished, reflective Lockheed Electra while filming and re-created Amelia’s circumnavigation from African locations. The whole thing has a National Geographic gloss to it, and when the film’s score starts swelling every other scene, the gloss reveals itself to be sugary sweet and sticky.
There’s something about Amelia that doesn’t work.
Conflict, my screenwriting teachers told me, is the seed that sprouts all drama. One character is in a situation with another character and they both want something from each other. That sounds a lot like drama, and it might fit some loose definitions, but the sparkle of interesting interaction can be added to this scene by making both characters withholding of the other’s desire. Amelia fails to establish this basic level of conflict.
I’ve been describing it to people as a film made like a bad Disney sports movie. Swank as Amelia is an eyebrow-less but bright-eyed female pilot in 1928, when the film introduces her. She’s meeting with George Putnam (Richard Gere), a book publisher who hires her to command the first female-commanded flight across the Atlantic. Amelia isn’t psyched about not being able to fly, she’ll just be “commanding,” but the success of the flight will bring her fame enough to do what she wants, so she goes and successfully flies over the Atlantic. After that, there is no more conflict in the story.
Disney Sports films like The Mighty Ducks or Iron Will always take our heroes and put them in impossible situations. Even when the going gets tough and everyone laughs at a Jamaican bobsled team, the main characters hold on to their dreams of being great and won’t let anyone stop them. They work harder, train more and display more will power than the opposing team, so when they win, we’re ready. Amelia is like a Disney Sports movie character in the sense that she just wants to fly because it makes her feel free. Amelia, the movie, is not like Disney Sports because after Amelia crosses the Atlantic no one is interested in stopping her from doing anything.