Amelia vs. The Spirit: No Contest
When I was crawling around Joe Shepherd's nicely restored Electra at AOPA Summit last week, it occurred to me that the new film Amelia would be worth a look. We saw it Saturday night in a near empty theater here in Florida. (I don't take that as disinterest in aviation so much as the topic of Earhart itself, which is a steady staple on The History Channel. Viewers may be bored by it.)
Overall impression? I'd give it an eight on a scale of 10. I'd give Hilary Swank a 10 for nailing Earhart's accent and mannerisms, something that taxes the actor's skill to the limit because it's so easy to see through it when it's wrong. The flying scenes were terrific and lavishly shot in South Africa. Hundred million dollar budgets yield that. Reviews I've read flag the film as having a weak script, and I agree. It dragged at points and some of the dialog was a little silly. There are rushed scenes, such as the air race segment and the forced Gene Vidal detours that spread the story too wide at the expense of depth.
Halfway through the picture, I found myself comparing Amelia to Billy Wilder's Spirit of St. Louis, which, 50 years ago, used the same flashback device to move the story along. That film had Jimmy Stewart in the lead. The studio didn't want to cast Stewart because when the film was shot in 1957, Stewart was 49 and, so the story goes, too old to play the 25-year-old Lindbergh. But Stewart prevailed and carried the role brilliantly.
One reason for that is that he was a pilot. He was just over a decade from having flown 25 combat missions in Europe and he remained in the active Air Force reserves until 1968, retiring at flag rank. Wilder shrewdly constructed shots that showed Stewart's feel for airplanes. Remember the scene where he was running up the engine wondering about moisture in the mags? Compare that to Swank's performance in the Hawaii crash segment in Amelia.
And in Spirit's famous mirror scene—shot sparely and played quietly—we got a glimpse inside airplane that both moved the narrative forward and gave us a tantalizing glimpse into the Ryan's technical innards. That scene alone is among the masterpieces of modern film craftsmanship.
Directors don't do that much anymore, if at all. They assume—perhaps rightly—that the audience is too shallow and distracted to want to think about how the laws of physics and aerodynamics work, how machines fit into that and how people operate them. Thus, in Amelia, we don't get to see what the panel looked like, nor we do learn that she had a hand in her demise because of poor planning and execution. Compared to The Spirit of St. Louis, Amelia is pretty, but shallow.
Another metaphor for modern life.