Stephanie Zacharek: "Amelia": What becomes a legend most?

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[Stephanie Zacharek has been writing regularly for Salon since January 1996 -- almost, but not quite, from its first issue. She is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle.]

Mira Nair's "Amelia" purports to tell the story of a grand American legend, that of Amelia Earhart, whose plane disappeared in the Pacific in 1937 as she attempted to finish a record-breaking 'round-the-world journey. It's a big story, and a rich one, particularly when you factor in the complexities of Earhart's relationship with her publicist husband, George Putnam, and her extramarital affair with Gene Vidal (father of Gore), the director of the Bureau of Air Commerce under FDR. Then there's the fact that "Amelia" has perfect casting in its favor: There's no current actress better suited, in terms of appearance or temperament, to play Earhart than Hilary Swank.

But the last person we need to tell the story of a famous aviatrix who tragically lost her way is a filmmaker with a lousy sense of direction. "Amelia" is a stunted epic, an ambitious and handsome-looking picture that tells its story in the dullest, most confusing way possible: This is a movie about an on-the-go heroine who symbolizes a new era of freedom and mobility, which means people move around, a lot. But it's often hard to tell exactly where the major players are and what, exactly, they're doing there. The movie isn't just about rootlessness; it's lost in the clouds itself. The filmmaking is vague when it needs to be specific and aggressively expository when it needs to be understated. This Earhart feels the need to talk about her love of flying incessantly, lest anyone think the first aviatrix to fly solo across the Atlantic is somehow lacking in passion. When a journalist asks her if she plans to quit flying after her 'round-the-world journey, she replies, "Not while there's still life in me. I fly for the fun of it." Elsewhere, she proclaims she wants to be "free, a vagabond of the air." Later, during the course of her ill-fated final trip, she announces in voice-over, "I am on my shining adventure." Watching "Amelia," you'd think Earhart was a talker, not a doer.

Nair and the screenwriters (Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, who drew partly from Susan Butler's "East to the Dawn" and Mary S. Lovell's "The Sound of Wings") begin Earhart's story near the end, as she's about to leave Miami on her ill-fated journey. They revisit Earhart during various points on that journey: She and her navigator, Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), share some laughs, with a goat, in the desert; while airborne, she points out a herd of running beasts below, marveling, in just one more example of the movie's typical "tell, don't show" approach, "Look how free they are!" Nair hops around the landscape of Earhart's life, covering with schoolbookish zeal her major achievements and alighting briefly on her merchandising and moneymaking efforts. (Earhart had her own line of luggage, and at one point in the movie, she hawks a waffle iron.)...

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