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The Aviator
cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alan Alda, Kate Beckinsale, and Alec Baldwin

director: Martin Scorsese

163 minutes (12) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Buena Vista DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
The Aviator finds Martin Scorsese back at close to top form after some of the disappointment that attended The Gangs Of New York (2002). This is partly because, in Howard Hughes, the director has once again found a driven, flawed character such has typically appeared in his most successful work. Like a Travis Bickle, Henry Hill, or Jake La Motta, Hughes is another self-tortured soul on the way to a dramatic end, a journey whose effects are orchestrated by a filmmaker currently at the height of his powers. And unlike the narrative weaknesses which informed his previous film, The Aviator has a strong narrative line with a coherent and compelling sweep, one which takes events down several decades with ease. The Academy obviously thought so, as the film won five out of its 11 Oscar nominations.

At centre of Scorsese's biopic is reclusive flyer, aircraft designer, film producer, eccentric lover, and multi-millionaire obsessive-compulsive Hughes, whose colourful career surely provides enough material for a dozen films. He's been portrayed before of course: notably by Tommy Lee Jones (The Amazing Howard Hughes, 1977), and Jason Robards (Melvin And Howard, 1980), and others. But none of these previous incarnations had the benefits of Scorsese's budget or his undeniable cinematic flair. Combined, they make for compelling viewing as we see Hughes' private life and career rise and soar, before entering the turbulent years of rivalry with Pan-Am over the transatlantic aero market and the entrepreneur's increasing mental problems. Indeed, part of the fun of Scorsese's film lies in the symptom-watching, judging just when the hero famously tips over the edge, anticipating his future years spent in shrouded hotel rooms with long nails and matted hair. (This viewer has it when Hughes raises his hand into the air, as if suddenly noticing germs, during a late screening of Hell's Angels). Scriptwriter John Logan co-wrote Gladiator, and so he's well used to organising a larger-than-life central character, while his writing on RK280 (1999), an account of the genesis of Citizen Kane, showed an informed and affectionate interest in the legendary tales of Hollywood. Like Welles did with Kane, Logan places the origin of Hughes' personality quirks firmly in his childhood, and includes a suggestive opening scene neatly encapsulating obsession, cleanliness, and aberrant sexuality.

Some critics have felt that the director could profitably spent more time on Hughes' years as a recluse but this would have meant a different, longer, and perhaps less satisfying film and in fact Leonardo DiCaprio's performance remains strongest when relating to others. His moments alone in his room, while dramatically necessary, are arguably weaker than when the declining Hughes interacts with disturbed intimates, although even in this isolation Scorsese gives madness a fascination of its own.

DiCaprio's acting is to be commended in a film covering such ambitious ground, and is generally successful. One is reminded of Giant (1956), a film in which another youthful actor, James Dean, is called to play a character ageing over a span of years. Like Dean, DiCaprio is perhaps still too fresh faced be entirely convincing as a mature man, but its only a minor distraction. In fact this is the best he's been for some time, proof further that under Scorsese's guidance the actor is doing his finest work. The director certainly has no reservations about DiCaprio having already announced his starring part in a new gangster project, 'The Departed'. A fine supporting cast, notably Cate Blanchett as Hughes' main infatuation Katherine Hepburn - the only woman who apparently gave him a run for his money - and a still sprightly Alan Alda, marvellous as scheming Senator Brewster, helps matters along considerably.

Inevitably in a film titled The Aviator, there's a lot of flying and chat about planes. Fortunately, Hughes thought big, and his outlandish projects (including one seaplane, the biggest ever built, called the 'Spruce Goose' which hardly flew) are eye candy in themselves, while Scorsese revels in the enthusiasm and drive which Hughes brought to his projects. Indeed Hughes is seen taking almost sensual pleasure in the smooth fuselage of his prototype aircraft, his hands feeling for the flush rivets with the same suspenseful concentration as he had earlier seducing a waitress in a club. In fact one senses that Hughes 'flies' his sexual conquests with the same daredevil and rocky approach as that with which he conquers the skies, as his career runs a fine balance between business and obsessive pleasure, risk and enterprise. The inevitable smash-ups, personal or mechanical, when they occur are well done whilst the surrounding intrigues of Hughes' life, whether in the studio, bedroom or congressional committee provide more than adequate distractions from any mundane aspects of aircraft engineering. In Scorsese's hands ultimately the 'aviator' of the title becomes more than a flyer; it becomes the defining mark of a man who took risks, lived too fast, perhaps rose too high until, Icarus like, he was doomed to collapse back.

If there's a criticism of Scorsese's film it is that a good deal of the real life Hughes' more unpalatable character has been suppressed. Like Ford's Young Mr Lincoln (a film which Scorsese admires), there is an occasional air of hagiography about the man in earliest days, a visionary blessed by his personal integrity. But history tells us that this was someone who was a serial seducer of starlets (a characteristic made more palatable here), was rabidly anti-communist, and hated blacks. Clearly a lot of the extreme Hughes was jettisoned to make him a more sympathetic character but, sometime, there is still room for a rabid anti-biography.

Much of Scorsese's love of cinema history and care is in evidence here, especially in the recreating of the interminable production circumstances of Hell's Angels (Hughes' best production). This care extends to an interesting cinematographical choice: Scorsese recreates a two-strip Technicolor process throughout for the first part of the film, only reverting to a later three-strip look when Hughes reaches the late 1930s. The extras on the DVD, befitting such a prestigious release, are substantial, beginning with a making of featurette: A Life Without Limits. For more information on Hughes, the "man always willing to risk his fortune on a dream" there is a documentary originated by the History Channel. For this viewer, the more interesting elements of all this supporting information are based around Hughes' increasing battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which has a featurette all of its own. Given that, from one point of view at least, The Aviator is as much medical case history as career study, such parts are fascinating. Scorsese's own commentary is excellent, as are the various bits and pieces filling in some of the technical aspects of the production. Interestingly, Scorsese (who once seriously contemplated becoming a priest) relates the disorder to the practice of religious rituals. All in this is excellent and should not be missed.

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