Amelia is a frustratingly old-school, Hollywood-style, inspirational biopic about Amelia Earhart that doesn't trust a viewer's independent assessment of the famous woman pictured on the screen. The mystery we ought to be paying attention to is: What really happened on the legendary American aviator's final, fatal flight in 1937? But the question audiences are left with is this: How could so tradition-busting a role model have resulted in so square, stiff, and earthbound a movie? Why present such a modern woman in such a fusty format? Dressed for the title role in a wardrobe of jumpsuits, leather jackets, scarves, and slinky evening wear dashing enough to stop air traffic, Hilary Swank's Earhart doesn't so much talk as make stump speeches even when she's at her own breakfast table. And director Mira Nair (The Namesake), working from an overexplanatory script by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan (based on dual biographies by Susan Butler and Mary S. Lovell), overloads the picture with a cargo of messages, so much so that she deadens her subject's spirit. Some of these talking points are aimed at today's teenage girls who might admire the subject's highly personal fashion sense; others go out to older women who cherish her feminist cred. All of them add up to banners that might as well be flown from an aircraft tail over a beach: Amelia Earhart lived free in life and love! And Fly! She! Must!
Of course, she did, setting records as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in 1928 (she was a passenger, but still, ladies of the day generally didn't wear leather helmets and zoom through the air). Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. She went on to launch her own brand-name fashion line. In 1935, she became the first pilot to fly solo from Hawaii to California. Sometimes the press dubbed her Lady Lindy, linking her fame to that of pioneering pilot Charles Lindbergh. Most famously, she vanished (along with her navigator, Fred Noonan) in the middle of the Pacific while on an around-the-world flight in 1937; her plane was never found, and she was declared legally dead in 1939.
Along the way, the celebrity married George Putnam, the publisher and tireless promoter who shaped her public image. (Richard Gere does the honors as Putnam with all the dated, silver-head-in-hands poses required of him as a worried businessman/spouse whose wife is also his client.) For a time, the freethinking woman also conducted a love affair with aeronautics pioneer Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), now best known as the father of writer Gore Vidal. Swank delivers long, carefully composed explications of Earhart's unorthodox attitude toward marriage and feminine autonomy, taken from her journal entries, in studied accents somewhere between those of the Kansas plains of Earhart's birth and those of Katharine Hepburn in her most famous trouser-wearing, gumption-gal roles.
Amelia dutifully conveys the salient biographical info with a trusty cinematic device: As Earhart and Noonan embark on their doomed flight, flashbacks catch the audience up on the events that got her there. (Christopher Eccleston, as Noonan, is the one understated player in this endeavor.) Those last 10 minutes or so of radio- communications loss, concurrent instrument failure, and dawning awareness of disaster are honestly gripping. But just in case the point isn't clear enough (She! Must! Fly!), throughout the drama composer Gabriel Yared lays on blasts of musical exclamations that are as distracting as sirens. Sometimes that music says, ''It's great to be in the sky and surfing the clouds!'' Sometimes it says, ''Look how pretty the landscape looks below kind of makes you miss the music in Out of Africa, right?'' Sometimes the rumble of violins and horns hints, ''Uh-oh, we're getting to the tragic part of the story!''
Mostly, the busy orchestra backs up the starry cinematography to remind us, ''This slim, androgynous beauty, with her unusual love life and her driving need to take to the skies, sure was something, huh?!'' Whatever the message, there's no navigating around such intrusive messengers. C+