Courageous. Pioneering. Adventurous. Headstrong. There are plenty of adjectives that describe Amelia Earhart, but none of these come through in this passionless biopic by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake). In trying to get the who, what, when, and wheres ticked off, the film misses out on the heart of the famed aviatrix. Ms. Earhart still comes across as confident and independent-minded but also ordinary inclining towards dull and hardly worth the decades-long fascination her life and death have commanded.

As if picking through the fresh wreckage of an air disaster, one can point a finger in almost any direction and find blame. The script by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan reads like a banal newsreel report, with apologies to banal newsreel reports. It wants to pay homage to the legend while also doing what biopics do these days – remind viewers of their subjects’ shortcomings. Nair’s direction indeed gives the film an ethereal touch with some beautiful bird’s eye views of different landscapes. Whether it is a range of silvery mountains or the rusty African savanna unfurling beneath the camera, one begins to understand the majesty of flight that so captivated Earhart.

The emotion she might have felt fails to translate through Hilary Swank’s performance though. The actress has her character’s earnest, weather-beaten farm girl smile, but it’s not enough to convince anyone that she’s an equally enthusiastic frontline, flag-waving feminist and pioneer. The best Swank has to offer, thanks to the cliché-heavy script, are superficial sound bites to young girls at photo sessions. “That’s a future flier!” she says in a shouty drawl.

When her achievements are shown, they are perfunctory and anticlimactic, playing out like a visual fact sheet in a history book. Only the last hours of her final flight with navigator, Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) betray anything of a personality. The unimaginative script offers no greater insight to Earhart herself or to the magnitude of her accomplishments and how she did, or didn’t, see herself making history. And rather than adding perspective, the impressive period set and costumes merely emphasize the pretense of importance.

The lifeless masquerade is most evident in Earhart’s relationship with publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), later Mr. Earhart. It’s strictly business between the two, until it’s not. Just as it is between her and another famed aviator and federal administrator Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), until it is not. Even the studied gazes of Gere and McGregor fail to ignite enough sparks to get the relationships off the ground. It seems the filmmakers were eager to emphasize this fallible side of St. Amelia, but without any raw affection in the performances, it’s hard to be drawn into her personal life.

The tedium of the whole project was countered by the too brief appearance of Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska), a plucky teenager and pioneering aviator in her own right. The record-setting daredevil proved to be the liveliest thing about the movie and left me wishing for an entirely different film, one about her life.

Released: 2009
Prod: Ted Waitt, Kevin Hyman, Lydia Dean Pilcher
Dir: Mira Nair
Writer: Ronald Bass, Anna Hamilton Phelan
Cast: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Aaron Abrams, Joe Anderson, Mia Wasikowska, Cherry Jones
Time: 111 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015