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Photograph by Ken Woroner
WING AND A PRAYER: Hilary Swank tries to get off the ground in 'Amelia.'

In-Flight Movie

Hilary Swank kind of looks like Amelia Earhart--and that's it.

By Richard von Busack

IF THE Bible and all world religions didn't prohibit unmanly weeping, Joni Mitchell's tune "Amelia" would probably have me sniveling every time. By contrast, the Hilary Swank-starring, Mira Nair-directed biopic Amelia didn't even get me to the verge of red-eye. If there ever was a figure who deserved a postmodern bio, it's Amelia Earhart, who left so many questions behind.

The film Amelia spins the time frame around, but it's done in the standard fashion: incidents of her final world-circling flight, cutting back to the beginning of the aviator's career. Amelia is very much the canned biopic that exists solely because a celebrated actress is playing on a physical resemblance.

Swank does look like Earhart, grinning large, with freckles and bleached hair; in truth, Swank also looks a lot like Jimmy Carter. But repeat offender Ron Bass' prolix script keeps underlining every relationship with a yellow highlighter. Characters introduce themselves by telling us who they are, what their hopes are and what interesting quirk they might have.

Amelia tells the story of her childhood in a first meeting, confessing that her father drank. He was more than just a drunk, the father; he was a kind of Micawber, a lawyer with big ideas and inventions that didn't sell. Amelia was no farm girl, even if this movie tries to sell her as one.

The film is a little more frank about Earhart's life than previous versions of the story. It teases us with the possibilities of her sexuality. "You're the only woman I know who points out other beautiful women," notes her husband, George F. Putnam, played by the still seriously undermojoed Richard Gere. Earhart seems to have asked for an open marriage, and she had an affair with the Washington socialite and West Point instructor Eugene Vidal (Ewan McGregor).

One of the few interesting aspects of Amelia is that it gives us one of the screen's only childhood accounts of Gore Vidal, Eugene's son. As played by William Cuddy, Gore looks like one of those overmannered, overbred children from a 1950s movie. Young Gore's big scene is talking to Earhart about being scared of some wallpaper with tigers on it--the song cue here ought to be "I Whistle a Happy Tune" from The King and I. Surely, even the child Vidal had something interesting to say?

The flying scenes aren't ugly, but there's only so long you can look at cloudscapes and stampeding animals in Africa ("What are those?" "Those are oryx!"). The images give way to stampeding sheep in, I'm going to say, Ireland. Titles are flashed, illustrating places and times; made-up newspaper headlines remind us that Earhart elevated people's spirits during the Depression. The script is rife with anachronisms: "I've got this"--when "this" refers to a situation. In another moment, Amelia flies to Pakistan, a neat trick since Pakistan wasn't anything more than a proposed country in the 1930s.

The movie has its moments, such as a scene of Amelia taking Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones) for her first plane ride over Washington at dawn. The staging of the finale over the Pacific is dramatic enough. Still, if it weren't for the ending, Amelia would be the exemplification of the tedious in-flight movie.

Movie Times AMELIA (PG; 111 min.), directed by Mira Nair, written by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, photographed by Stuart Dryburgh and starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere, plays at the Del Mar.

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