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Above the Fray


The Aviator

Martin Scorsese, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.8


Posted: December 27, 2004

By Laurence Station

Howard Hughes died in flight. Which, considering the famed billionaire's fascination with and love of aviation, seems appropriate. Martin Scorsese isn't concerned with how Hughes met his maker so much as he wants to celebrate the man as he was before his various phobias, obsessive compulsions, and (not totally unwarranted) paranoia rendered him an insane recluse. Thus, The Aviator examines a twenty-year stretch, from the late 1920s to the late 1940s, in which Hughes went from Texas oil drill-bit manufacturing heir to Hollywood playboy to pioneer in domestic and international airplane travel.

The problem with documenting a life as full -- and uniquely interesting -- as Hughes' is that attempting to condense even twenty of the man's seventy years into a two and a half hour biopic is a near-impossible task. Scorsese doesn't pull off the impossible, but he nonetheless crafts one of the most entertaining (though not without its share of lulls) films of his career.

The Aviator's success hinges on lead Leonardo DiCaprio's performance. While the talented DiCaprio bears little resemblance, facially or physically, to the tall, angularly built Hughes, the actor successfully manages to incorporate the eccentric tycoon's well-documented tics, from his intense displeasure at being photographed in public (his face locked in a pinched, pained expression) to his twangy, at times inarticulate, Southwestern accent. DiCaprio's greatest achievement, however, is in taking a self-absorbed, reckless, and overbearing personality (the classic only-child, "center of the universe" syndrome) and making him relentlessly watchable -- no matter how unsettling his behavior. Scorsese deserves credit here, also, as he managed a similar feat with Robert De Niro playing self-loathing manimal Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.

But The Aviator's greatest strength, unsurprisingly, derives from scenes in which Hughes is seen building or flying aircrafts. From vintage fighter planes during the filming of his independently produced war epic Hell's Angels to the largely birch wood-constructed monstrosity Hercules -- or the "Spruce Goose," as the press derisively dubbed what remains to this day the largest aircraft ever flown. Here The Aviator soars (sorry), with Hughes attaining a sense of freedom and privacy he never seemed to attain on the ground.

The film's treatment of Hughes as a consummate ladies man, on the other hand, misses more than it hits. His relationship with Katharine Hepburn (a wonderful Cate Blanchett) gets the most screen time and includes some marvelous moments, as when Hughes takes the actress flying and a particularly uncomfortable dinner with her very blue-blood New Englander family. His romance with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) generates few sparks, and his involvement with teenager Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner) seems more gratuitous sidebar than central plot element (even if it is posited as a rebound fling after Hepburn dumps Hughes for Spencer Tracy).

The Aviator's most pulse-quickening and impressively edited and photographed sequence occurs when Hughes crashes a prototype of his XF-11 spy plane into a neighborhood in Beverly Hills. Scorsese puts the viewer right there in the cockpit with Hughes as the plane goes down in true Icarus-like fashion. It's a jarring, chaotic and terrifying moment, and its physical and psychological cost to Hughes, from the broken bones to the scarred face that, in part, contributed to the growing of his signature moustache, is delivered in deft narrative strokes.

The downside is that after such a climactic event, there's still an hour to go. And said third act is spent witnessing Hughes' first mental breakdown and then following him as he battles Pan-Am head honcho Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin, straitjacketed in a cartoonishly one-note role) and his political lapdog, Senator Ralph Brewster (Alan Alda), for the right to fly internationally.

Alas, real life rarely follows the conveniently modulated rhythms of the three-act story arc. Even though Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan are clearly interested in telling a captivating version of Hughes' most high-profile years, the fallout after the XF-11 disaster is still a bit of a letdown.

The Aviator is bold and bright, and it certainly aims to please. This is not the art-house or scrappy "Little Italy" Scorsese. It doesn't have as much to say about America as his last epic, Gangs of New York, did. But it's the one film that might finally earn the director a gold statuette or two come Oscar night. Why? Because it's got three elements Hollywood adores: mental illness, stirring pyrotechnics and, most importantly, a megawatt-bright light shone on the industry's golden age. To be sure, Scorsese isn't exactly pandering with this normally surefire trifecta. Nonetheless, it will certainly grant him the best chance of his career at finally being honored by his fellow artists on the Left Coast.

Howard Hughes will forever remain a Sphinx-like enigma, an unknowable crackpot who just happened to be loaded. The Aviator, then, isn't so much a dissection of a complex man as it is a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit, and a championing of the hubris exhibited by men like Hughes who followed their whims simply because they had the means and the balls to do so.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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