The thing, these days, about almost any biopic with a worthy subject and a practicable budget is that it’s probably not gonna suck. Even if you don’t turn a limbic cartwheel over it, chances are, as you exit the theater, the word “solid” will appear in your brain, turn a few circles, and nestle comfortably in your frontal lobe.
Makes sense. If you’re a producer with the means, you’ll go after the director/cast/writers/cinematographer/composer you think you need to land near the big ol’ dreams in your head. It more or less follows, then, that if no one drops the ball (or, rather, outright guts it with a penknife), your odds of turning out something that isn’t an abject, fall-apart turkey are better than fair. More common, perhaps, are good-looking, wholly respectable films that nonetheless feel like a pretty showcase for one truly outstanding performance (see Ray, La Vie en Rose). Not that there’s a thing wrong with that, but when excellent storycraft and performance come together (Dog Day Afternoon), that’s when you’ve got a genuine keeper.
(Does Dog Day count as a biopic? Serpico, then.)
I’ve sort of been going back and forth on Amelia. Surely, all the elements seem to be in place. Nair directs; Swank/Gere/McGregor star; the screenwriters, cinematographer, and composer are all Oscar nominees and/or winners. The planes look fantastic. The aerial shots are appealing. The music’s great. Everything looks right (based on what I recall of my experiences as an aviatrix in the 1920s and ’30s) — the picture has that nice, wine-colored, faded-map-paper tint to it that makes things feel all warm and period-ish. And yet, for whatever reason, I never quite felt breathless.
It seems to me that the most awkward portions of biographical films come, frequently, near the beginning, when both filmmaker and audience are aware that the picture has much to tell, and that there’s precious little time. Amelia’s early goings do feel a bit rushed in this way: We’re introduced, we’re told she loves flying, and then we’re off, more or less. We’re not quite forced to care, just yet.
(Now, hold on. Don’t go making me out to be a dick. I didn’t just irrationally say “F--- Amelia Earhart.” What I’m saying is: The fact that I read of Ms. Earhart as a kid and think, as everyone does, that she’s awesome, will carry a film only so far.)
An upside to a less-than-riveting beginning, though, is that it’s eons preferable to a disappointing end: For me, the former is rarely fatal. If you fumble the first 10 minutes, you’ve still got 80-110 left with which to sneak up and grab folks. Amelia never really quite fumbles, and it does, eventually (and when it counts), grab. Swank’s Earhart isn’t as palpably tortured as Foxx’s Charles or as explosively mesmerizing as Cotillard’s Piaf, but then, Earhart wasn’t, to my knowledge, addicted to heroin or raised in a whorehouse. Instead, Swank’s pioneeress grins, grits, and grows on you — honest, unexpectedly adorable, and always fiercely, gracefully independent. And yet, the element that saves the day and gives Amelia its heart is the ultimate connection between Swank and Gere (as Earhart’s agent/doting husband) toward film’s end, most particularly during their last scene of dialogue (the aforementioned “grab”).
At bottom, Amelia wasn’t quite as soaring or as exhilarating as one might hope, given the size of Ms. Earhart’s legend. Swank talked about loving flying, but I never really got to feel it. What I did feel, though — a human connection to the characters — is arguably as important.
— Brian Villalobos