Archive Review: The Aviator (2004) – 4/5 Stars

Martin Scorsese’s second collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio is “The Aviator,” a nearly three-hour biopic examining about a thirty-year window in the life of airline and movie mogul Howard Hughes, whose successes in aviation and Hollywood romances made him shine in the public eye despite the bankrupting methods and slowly growing obsessive compulsions that tore at his private life.

Despite the length, Scorsese uses his brilliant talents to show how compulsion began to eat away at Hughes. To be honest, Hughes’ story is nothing unbelievable or inspirational. When one decides to do a biopic, it’s normally because the figure is compelling in a way audiences have never seen — but that’s not Hughes. His story is not so much what he did but the manner in which he did it, so Scorsese deserves a lot of the credit for keeping “Aviator” a compelling biography.

Scorsese brings what could constitute as horror movie technique to illustrate Hughes’ OCD. For one thing, OCD is not a vocal part of this film. It’s never mentioned aloud except when a few characters describe Hughes as “eccentric.” Scorsese is solely responsible for our understanding of Hughes’ condition. The way hands are shown moving slowly and elegantly in the film, the way Scorsese holds on a close-up of red meat — we get what’s going on in Hughes’ head.

The blast of light from old-time flashbulbs and the crunching of glass, the way different characters’ start to speak over each other — we easily identify with Hughes’ discomfort. Some help from Robert Richardson’s stunning color palettes and unusual but striking lighting effects certainly helped.

On the other side of the coin, the “continue to spend money to be ahead of the curve” slogan motivating Hughes’ inventing beginning with making “Hell’s Angels” the most expensive movie ever made (at the time) highlights the difference between him and ourselves. Nobody logically would have dared to do the things Hughes did, but he had the money and the drive to do it, constantly forcing his business manager (John C. Reilly, in the movie’s first scene) to take care of the technicalities and to make it work regardless of what it took. The fact that Hughes kept going despite OCD and making debilitating choices is what makes him a great biographical figure.

Parts of “Aviator,” while a big part of his life, don’t seem to add to this core vision Scorsese and writer John Logan (“Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai”) paints of who Hughes was. His playboy persona adds another mysterious dimension to his character, but as great as Cate Blanchett (Katherine Hepburn) and Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner) are in this film, their subplots don’t fit as well considering how much else is going on. In summary, Hughes needed them as maternal figures in a way, but couldn’t offer them anything substantial as far as love and affection. As interesting as that is to note, notice that it doesn’t exactly influence Hughes’ ceaseless drive to make the best planes in the world.

As Alan Alda’s character Sen. Brewster enters the picture and attacks the image of Hughes that we grew accustomed to in the first chunk of the film, calling him a criminal for using military tax dollars and never having anything to show for it, we start to see Hughes’ legacy. One could call Hughes a number of things, but not a liar or a crook. His flaws were in his ambition, not his core self. In 170 minutes he never once smokes a cigarette or drinks liquor — you won’t find that from a protagonist in a 1920-1947 period biopic in any other film. Coincidentally, the ambition of this film to fire off that message for its entire duration is its only real fault.

4/5 Stars

Directed by: Martyin Scorsese
Written by: John Logan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin


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