Review of The Aviator

The Aviator (2004)
Obsessively Watchable.
14 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Not many directors can say that their film-making careers haven't become as predictable as the next day, and for all its ups and downs and questionable choices, Martin Scorcese, with or without an Academy Award for Best Director, can stand proud and say that he is one of those few who have made at least one stellar film per decade since he began making films in the 1970s and continues making high-quality films for the serious moviegoer. Or, as it could be said, he makes the films he wants to make whether they become critical successes or failures.

Coming out of GANGS OF NEW YORK he decides to film this biopic about media dinosaur Howard Hughes at a time when the average moviegoer is more interested in the likes of Paris Hilton and her increasingly cretinous presence which has nothing to bring to society except smutty videotapes. In a year filled with biopics, THE AVIATOR is an important one, if trivially flawed, because in taking such a character and without sentiment analyzing his truly remarkable but ultimately tragic life he achieves a sharper view. Leonardo diCaprio as Howard Hughes does not have even a remote physical resemblance to the actual man, but there was no doubt in my mind that he was Hughes from head to toe. It's as if he studied Hughes through film reels because he gets him right and that makes his performance multi-dimensional. Watch a short, apparently unimportant scene with a bar-waitress early in the film and see how this establishes who he is in relation to women, what he thinks of them. Watch how diCaprio brings Hughes obsession with perfection and cleanliness to life: in film-making, in building the perfect plane. And watch those testosterone-fuled sequences in which Hughes breaks aviation records (almost killing himself at one point).

It can be said that THE AVIATOR is divided into two parts: The first half, which focuses on Hughes relationship with screen icon Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), and the second half which takes off from where she leaves and his obsessive-compulsive disorder, previously kept under control (suggesting she gave him some stability), comes flooding through unmonitored. During the first half of the movie DiCaprio and Blanchett create a perfect pair of social outcasts, and had the film ended there, this would have been a powerfully tragic love story. I got the sense, without reading Kate's autobiography, that these two really loved each other and were each other's complement. Hepburn's mercurial approach to Hughes must have obviously intoxicated him, and I could perceive (through Blanchett's flawless conveyance of Hepburn) that she was intrigued by this odd man, and of course, being so cerebral, she felt compelled to getting to know him. However, their differences could not have been better reflected in the disastrous scene when Hughes meets Hepburns family and though they remained together a bit longer, his womanizing was the cause for her abandonment of him and the gut-wrenching sequence in which be burns his clothes and orders work associate Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) to buy him more.

The second half doesn't lag. It does feel a little episodic, but Scorcese manages to make transitions smooth, while introducing players in the latter part of his life, such as Ava Gardner, Juan Trippe, and Senator Ralph Owen Brewster. As the case with many of Scorcese films, length and editing is an issue, and reducing the inclusion of starlet Faith Domergue would have been preferable, but again, Scorcese is making the film he chooses to make and this is really a quibble in my behalf, because soon later Hughes is back in action defending his usage of his own money during the war against accusations from Senator Brewster (Alan Alda, playing him like a snake). No punches are also thrown when the aforementioned OCD kicks in and Hughes starts to see things and becomes a virtual recluse, urinating into glass jars and watching the same movie over and over again (the movie in question was not THE OUTLAW as seen here, but the usage of this archive footage seems appropriate since it sums up his attitude toward women and a lost love in Kate Hepburn). Here is when DiCaprio really sinks his teeth into his role in making Hughes a broken man unable to cope with his madness and needing to defend himself against Brewster and Trippe.

Regardless to minor character inconsistencies and half-told story lines and that many of the actors look nothing like their real-life counterparts (i.e. Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Jude Law as Errol Flynn, and a glaringly miscast Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner), THE AVIATOR is solid entertainment and highly recommended to anyone who loves old movies and old Hollywood.
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