The Aviator

December, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Martin Scorsese

Starring:Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, and Alan Alda

Wouldn't anyone's interest be piqued by a film biography of Howard Hughes?  After all, here's the story of a business mogul turned filmmaker who designed and built several legendary aircraft while heading a famous airline, a resume that appeals to America's endless fascination with moneyed celebrity…and that's before you toss in affairs with famous movie stars and his descent into a morbid fear of germs which culminated in reclusive madness. Wouldn't Martin Scorcsese, director of some of the medium's best character studies, (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull) be just the artist to explore such a tantalizing figure? Finally, wouldn't Leonardo DiCaprio, with his lean good looks and current mega-stardom be just the actor or portray this larger than life figure? Well, after spending almost three hours slogging through it, the best way to answer those questions is with a resounding “maybe”. 

Hughes' life has been analyzed so thoroughly it's shop-worn; scion of the wealthy Texas industrialist who founded The Hughes Tool Company, Howard used his control of that corporation to finance his entry into movie production, (Hell's Angels, Scarface, The Outlaw) while pursuing a lifelong passion for aviation, first as designer and builder of airplanes (Hughes Aircraft) and then as owner/operator of one of the country's first major airlines (TWA). Along the way, there were sexual dalliances with some of Hollywood's leading ladies, (Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner get pride of place) pitched battles with rival Pan Am Airways and the United States Congress, all interspersed with bouts of obsessive/compulsive behavior that culminated in a paranoia so through that even the facts surrounding his death were disputed because Hughes finally sealed himself off spending his last days in sarcophagus/penthouse atop a Las Vegas casino. 

Aviator begins well; in it's first scene, Howard's mother sensuously bathes her pre-pubescent son, cooing spelling lessons to her impressionable progeny while darkly warning him of the rampant diseases the world ceaselessly offers; this softly-shadowed atmosphere is disturbingly erotic and reminiscent of a similar bath in Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes. But Scorsese abruptly follows this moody, arousing opening by jumping forward several decades to the set of Hughes' WW I epic, Hell's Angels. In short order, we're introduced to the fledgling director's capacity for snap judgments, his imperious style of management along with his fascination for, and success with, beautiful women. Screenwriter John Logan, (Gladiator, The Last Samurai) provides a screenplay that wisely concentrates on the middle years of his subject's life, after the coddled childhood and before the decades of dementia. That decision suits both DiCaprio's current age and abilities; he brings the right blend of good looks, casual arrogance and nervous energy to the title role. If the actor's personal reputation for self-absorption is accurate, it finds perfect expression in this portrayal of a man who, by all accounts, spent his entire life obsessively focused on himself. As a result, a good deal of Oscar buzz already surrounds the performance--and there's certainly a lot of it; DiCaprio's in nearly every scene in the picture. Investing a character of limited range with anything approaching sympathetic nuance presents a distinctive challenge to the actor and director involved; Imelda Staunton did it brilliantly as the lead in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake; both DiCaprio and Scorsese could learn a lot from it's artistry.) 

But even a stellar performance by DiCaprio can't carry a movie of this gargantuan size; Cate Blanchett's Hepburn is all awkward impersonation and unappealing girlishness while Ian Holm's academic-turned-corporate camp-follower comes burdened with facial tics and European accent unworthy of such a fine actor. Only Alan Alda as a corrupt Senator and Alec Baldwin as the flinty head of Pan American Airways bring credibility to their relatively small roles; as Ava Gardner, Kate Beckinsale has the sex appeal of a dead toad, while the usually fine John C. Reilly, (Boogie Nights, The Good Girl, The Hours) can't make Noah Dietrich, Hughes' long-suffering and highly capable corporate chief of staff, anything more than a dull stand-in for one of the Three Stooges. 

To paraphrase The Bard, the fault lies not in these stars, but in the script; Logan's characters don't exist to add shading to Hughes' personality, but rather function as live-action cartoon figures to present the principal facts in Hughes’ life.  As such, they could be replaced by cue cards for all the nuance they bring to the film.  Logan's script suggests that Hughes simply surrounded himself with yes-men anxious to remain in his over-compensated employ and nubile women motivated to use his bed in order to further their film careers. As if to compensate for these one-dimensional portraits, Scorsese repeatedly transitions from one scene to the next by injecting patently over-stylized performances of popular tunes from the twenties, thirties and forties, the better to signify that the smarminess of such music explains the mixture of sentimentality and furious self promotion which fuels most of The Aviator's other characters. 

Yet faced with a such shallow script and uneven performances, a director as fine as this one can still deliver a splendid-looking picture, and Scorsese does that in spades; all the sweeping aerial shots work particularly well, especially those of Hughes directing the action sequences of Hell's Angels. When Hughes acts as his own test pilot, surviving a pair of electrifying crash landings, Scorsese's camerawork pulsates with visceral energy. (In the first of these, Scorsese, cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Thomas Schoonmaker plow up a beet field as though the hapless Hughes was piloting a tractor rather than a plane.) These action sequences are coupled with smaller touches that reconfirm Scorsese's eye for detail; when Faith Domergue is given her screen test, Scorsese introduces her with a shot that starts on the pair of brilliantly colored pumps the young actress is wearing, then moves up her vividly patterned dress to end with a close-up of an awkwardly innocent teen-aged face which perfectly expresses a vulnerability to seduction. Alec Baldwin carefully polished corporate rapaciousness is underscored when he pulls a length of garrote-like rope from his suit pocket to use as a ruler in measuring distances on the globe in his office. A scene between DiCaprio and Baldwin that begins with alternating shots of them on either side of a locked door sinuously morphs into a split-screen conversation as ingeniously lit as it is shot. Scorsese incorporates actual footage from several of Hughes' films as backdrops in often amusing ways; it's doubtful that Jane Russell's cleavage in The Outlaw will ever be more intriguingly utilized in demonstrating the absurdity of Hollywood's Production Code. 

The Aviator features lots of sprawling, complex set-pieces as well; jam-packed movie premieres, crowded dance floors, Senate hearings; each displays the sweep of the director's ambition and the lavish attention to detail so prominent in his equally ambitious and thoroughly disappointing earlier partnership with DiCaprio in The Gangs Of New York.  Filmed in a colors ranging from florid reds to soft-hued pastels and featuring sophisticated costume designs that pay attention to period gowns as well a wardrobe for DiCaprio that subtly descends from tuxedos and be-spoke suits to the sneakers and rumpled slacks he wore in later life, The Aviator exemplifies big-budget Hollywood at its most sophisticated. Unfortunately,

what a Scorcsese film now lacks in intimacy, is reflected in production values reminiscent of a Cecil DeMille biblical epic; as a result, The Aviator grows curiously reverential towards its subject, depicting this pampered, quirky egocentric as a pioneering entrepreneur in aviation cursed by the years spent at his mother's knee rather than as the far less impressive and financially irresponsible industrialist he actually was. (Francis Ford Coppola presented a similarly distorted view of the auto industry in Tucker: The Man and His Dream, so Scorsese certainly isn't the first director who can be accused of bending the facts to fit his personal vision.) 

     Yet for all its visual bravado, the time, talent and money spent on this study of megalomania don’t stand comparison with its far more interesting counterpart, Citizen Kane. In that film, which examined the equally notorious businessman William Randolph Hearst, Orson Wells created characters with far more vitality and impact in less time, (169 minutes vs. 119) and at much lower production cost. Despite all the Academy Award hype for this movie, there's no disguising the fact that the director and his highly professional crew have created an oversized, heavily fictionalized and rather shallow final product, more suitable to the television series Biography than the big screen. 


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