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Failure to Launch

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Amelia has been dismissed by some as proof of the American film biography’s creative bankruptcy. It is nothing of the sort. Cinematic biography is not a defunct art form, nor is this drama about pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart, starring and produced by a typically self-assured Hilary Swank, evidence of its impending demise.

It does, however, represent an opportunity missed: Earhart’s remarkable life could have been the basis for an absorbing movie, but this latest offering from director Mira Nair (The Namesake) feels more safe and superficial than honest.

By now, Earhart’s most celebrated achievements, like the mystery surrounding her 1937 disappearance somewhere over the Pacific as she tried to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, should be common knowledge. She was also the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, in 1928, as a passenger. Earhart described the experience as making her feel “like a sack of potatoes", and vowed to make the trip alone someday. Four years later, she did.

The movie dutifully chronicles all of Earhart’s greatest hits, often through surprisingly disposable flight sequences and black-and-white newsreels. But screenwriters Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, who adapted the movie from two books, East to the Dawn and The Sound of Wings, seem more interested in exploring Earhart’s unconventional marriage to publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere).

Besides combating sexist indignities in her dealings with fellow pilots, Earhart took a free-thinking approach to marriage, telling her doting but often neglected husband that faithfulness was not part of their bargain. (She had a short-lived affair with aeronautics expert Gene Vidal, played here by Ewan McGregor, best known now as the father of Gore.) Her great passion always -- despite Nair’s appetite for melodrama and Linda Cohen’s bombastic score, which tries to infuse Putnam and Earhart’s relationship with a romantic vitality it never quite justifies -- was flight.

The ending to Earhart’s story is no mystery -- we know from the start that she’s doomed. The only question is how her final journey will play out on screen. Once again, Bass and Phelan opt for an easy way out that feels calculated, and once again, the account of a life that was real and compelling is trivialized by the shallowest conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. We get the X’s and O’s of what she did without any true sense of why.