Director : Martin Scorsese
Screenplay : John Logan
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes), Cate Blanchett (Katharine Hepburn), Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner), John C. Reilly (Noah Dietrich), Alec Baldwin (Juan Trippe), Alan Alda (Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster), Ian Holm (Professor Fitz), Danny Huston (Jack Frye), Gwen Stefani (Jean Harlow), Jude Law (Errol Flynn), Adam Scott (Johnny Meyer), Matt Ross (Glenn Odekirk), Kelli Garner (Faith Domergue)
Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, his most assured and fluid film since 1995's Casino, is a bold portrait of Howard Hughes, a man who was larger than life in every conceivable way. Pioneering aviator, independent movie producer, millionaire playboy, victim of mental illness--Hughes was all of these things and more. Thus, it is testament to Scorsese's vision and skill as a filmmaker that he captures Hughes and all his contradictions in a rip-roaring CinemaScope portrait that is both intimate and epic.
In a dazzling display of cinematic metareflection so obvious that it is easy to overlook its genius, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson (Kill Bill) paint Hughes' cinematic portrait in gradually evolving color schemes that reflect the color film processes of the era. Thus, when the film opens in the late 1920s, the picture reflects the crude two-strip Technicolor process of that day, which was heavy on red and blue and not much in-between. As the narrative progresses, so does the color, so that by the time the narrative ends in 1947, it looks like the dye-transfer four-strip process we associate with that time. It's a marvelous conceit, one that cleverly binds image and narrative and history.
Hughes is best known today as a legendary recluse, remembered in the popular imagination as a rail-thin, shambling old man with grungy hair, sunken eyes, and long fingernails who disappeared from the public eye and wasted away in wealthy dilapidation, a victim of morphine addiction and mental illness. Yet, that is not the Hughes depicted in The Aviator. Rather, John Logan's script focuses on Hughes' life from 1927, when he was sinking unheard-of sums of money into his directorial debut, the World War I fighter epic Hell's Angels (1930), to the late 1940s, when he fought off Congressional inquiry to make TWA one of only two U.S. airlines to fly around the world.
Hughes is embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio in a performance that is astonishing. Although he looks nothing like Hughes physically (in fact, once he has a mustache, DiCaprio looks surprisingly like a young Orson Welles), DiCaprio captures the spirit of a man driven at all times. Always on the go, always brimming with new ideas, relentless in his desire to do everything his way, Hughes is megalomaniacal, but utterly compelling. Scorsese's approach to the material and DiCaprio's performance are deeply sympathetic, suggesting that Hughes was the essence of greatness, fighting off every external threat only to fall prey to his own internal demons. In this sense, he is a tragic figure of Shakespearean dimensions.
Scorsese goes light on investigating the psychology behind Hughes' downfall, and he includes only a brief opening scene with Hughes as a child being bathed by his calmly germaphobic mother, which is then replayed in a haunting bookend during the film's closing scene. While this to a certain extent diminishes the film's depth, it also frees Scorsese of the kind of armchair pop-psychology that is de rigueur for the biopic genre. It actually adds to Hughes' mythic stature that his demons are left somewhat vague, always creeping around the margins of his successes.
What The Aviator does best, then, is evoke its time and place, something that has been a hallmark of Scorsese's films, from the city-as-inferno in Taxi Driver (1976), to the sumptuous world of aristocracy in The Age of Innocence (1993), to the mean streets of 19th-century New York in Gangs of New York (2002). Here, he and production designer Dante Ferretti, with whom he worked on Kundun (1997) and Gangs, recreate the glamorous, art deco world of 1930s Hollywood in all its excess, with swinging big-band tunes, sultry cigarette girls, and all the royalty of the movie industry in their best tuxedos and ballroom dresses. It's not surprising that Scorsese, fast-talking movie junkie that he is, is so extraordinarily adept at replicating the aura of Hollywood's heyday, as he is one of the few filmmakers who truly knows cinema history, rather than just how to crib from it.
The almost-fantasy world of Hollywood is populated by familiar icons of the era, which is always a danger because the actors portraying them are at a constant risk of being caricatures rather than characters. Thus, it is no small feat that Cate Blanchett turns in one of the best performances of the year as Katherine Hepburn, with whom Hughes was romantically involved for several years. Blanchett nails Hepburn's saucy, New England aristocrat purr and her vivacious demeanor, but beneath the detail is a deeply felt portrayal of a woman ahead of her time, who realizes that she's different and revels in it. Her relationship with Hughes is the heart of the film, which renders his involvement with other silver-screen sirens such as Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) into mere dalliances. The interactions between Hughes and Hepburn bounce and are often very funny, reminding us that Scorsese, despite his association with heady subject matter, has a good touch with offbeat comedy.
As the title suggests, much of the film deals with Hughes' passion for aviation, beginning with the mania of Hell's Angels and culminating in his buying a controlling share of TWA and going head-to-head with Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), the competitive owner of Pan Am. Scorsese finds a humorous visual pun to drive home Hughes' love of airplanes and their design when he match-cuts directly from Hughes running his hand across Hepburn's naked back to him running his hand along the smooth, shiny fuselage of an experimental airplane. Always the avid flyer, Hughes insisted on testing his planes personally, and the film's most bravura and harrowing sequence depicts his prototype spy plane crashlanding in the middle of Beverly Hills, ripping through houses and mangling his body.
At nearly three hours in length, The Aviator is remarkably seamless in moving from plot point to plot point, and it never for a second feels lumbering or tiresome, as Gangs of New York did from virtually the first frames. Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker have assembled the film with a pitch-perfect pace, waltzing seamlessly between small details and big-screen grandeur, pausing in just the right places to reflect on the painful ironies that cut through Hughes' life-how a man who could so fearlessly take to the skies with a movie camera to film edge-of-your-teeth dogfights thousands of feet above the ground was mortified to the point of paralysis at the idea of touching a bathroom doorknob.
Scorsese transcends the cliche of the genius/madness dichotomy by extending it beyond Hughes to the world at large, turning him into a perfect metonym for the dog-eat-dog capitalism that defined his life. It's impossible to tell, as the final image darkens on Hughes obsessively repeating "The way of the future," where Hughes ends and America begins.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Miramax Pictures and Warner Bros.