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By Matthew Sorrento | October 23, 2009

Today, we take aerial photography for granted. Ever since “Top Gun” shot jets all through the sky, we’ve come to expect that cameras can capture it all. To experience the thrill, we need to return to William Wellman’s late silent film, the 1927 Oscar winner for Outstanding Picture, “Wings.” This film about World War I pilots was an A-list production starring Gary Cooper and Clara Bow, even if much of it is sappy melodrama. Nonetheless, “Wings” sports a number of exciting aerial shots, many of which were filmed by fixing a camera to a plane. The energy of all this movement, not to mention the obvious thrill of the players, shows the original passion of flight films.

Scorsese captured this feeling in the flying sequences of “The Aviator,” and the new biopic of Amelia Earhart would need at least as much. Director Mira Nair takes a simple, elegant approach to capturing “Amelia” in flight, and by doing so, creates a winning old-fashioned entertainment. Here we have the passion of “Wings” and a tribute to it. Nair trusts her oldschool filmmaking style enough to inspire a fresh take on a legend.

The film recalls how Earhart, a media sensation in her time, grew into something like a folk hero. As the first woman to fly trans-Atlantic, even though she was a passenger on the touted trip, Earhart would soon fly it herself. A figure so well known requires a physical likeness in the actor portraying her. Hence, Nair casted Hilary Swank, a sure-handed performer even if usually limited to offbeat roles. “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby” have shown Swank in best form, where her characters have to face feats both psychological and physical. Her recent sentimental work for Richard LaGravenese, including “Freedom Writers” and “PS, I Love You,” feels routine since Swank displays a fraction of her skill.

Yet, Amelia is a role well suited for Swank. It demands a stylized performance, due to the historical content, and many moments of duress: flying overseas was close to a suicide mission at the time. And, as history tells us, such a flight took away this legend.

The film must address the Earhart’s unresolved tragedy, when her plane went missing after it could not make radio contact. Thus, Nair uses Amelia’s last flight – one around the world, the grandest travelogue of them all – as the film’s framing device. This flashback structure offers a mandatory sense of doom while celebrating the pilot’s legacy, and thus a conventional flashback device feels not at all dusty.

Amelia rises through a political game. Committed to flying, she needs to maneuver through policies to avoid sexual prejudice. She has to deal with sexist pilots and technicians who will dismiss her potential one minute and hit on her the next. Her path intersects with publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), an understanding man-in-power who capitalizes on Earhart’s newsworthiness by commissioning a book on her first flight. Genuinely interested in her passion and likely success, he sticks by her, becoming her business and – eventually – romantic partner. Gere has been underplaying roles for years, a style that’s lent itself to historical roles. Here he serves as a reliable compliment to Swank – after all, this is her show.

Swank accentuates her line reading to fit into Nair’s stylized approach. Sounding a bit odd at first – as if the actor took too many cues from Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” – Swank settles into a groove that’s miles from the viscerally realistic approach to her best work. Yet, she doesn’t spare Earhart’s splendor and pain. Joy spreads throughout Swank during Earhart’s triumphs, while the misfortune runs just as deep, like when Earhart realizes that her final flight, as she promised to her husband, would be the Fates’ decision and not her own. In a dark moment that turned a legend into a mystery, Swank reflects Earhart’s acceptance through a teary strength.

When this actor steps into the right role, she wears and inspires it like Denzel Washington. Oscar voters never pass up a high-profile biopic like this. But when they see Swank’s controlled excellence, their attention will be well deserved.

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