The Aviator (2004)

After their successful collaboration in Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio became a director/actor team, following that success with 2004’s The Aviator. Scorsese’s epic biopic follows DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, the famous aviator, filmmaker and entrepreneur. The movie takes place from the 20s to the 40s, and includes depictions of well-known stars of the era, including Katherine Hepburn (played by Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale).

The Aviator is like the man whose story it tells, in that it has huge ideas and grand ambitions. The film celebrates its setting with very vivid depictions of the decades it goes through. Hughes is certainly a man interesting enough to fill such a lofty film, with his unrestrained ambitions and obsessive compulsive personality disorder. DiCaprio proves that he is a true leading man who doesn’t have to rely on his good looks and heart-throbbing teen fans. He really embraces the role, accent and all, and fits into it nicely. He manages to fit the character’s needs and is able to balance between paranoid, eccentric, and brilliant.

Hughes is certainly a complex character, and one of my complaints with the story is that it prefaces his anxiety disorder with a single, short scene where his mother warns him about germs. I realize that your environment growing up may have some impact on an eventual psychological affliction, but to imply that his problem is caused by this in a throwaway scene feels kind of cheap.

Throughout the film, Hughes faces some crises. After a very well-shot and fantastic looking flight scene, Hughes crashes in what is easily the most intense sequence of the movie. Another scene near the end of the film, after his sanity and stability has almost entirely eroded away, there’s a sequence of him at his low-point, locked in a room and compulsively lining up jars of his urine. Another problem with the movie is his unexplained and instant recoveries from these incidents. The plane crash severely injures him, but just a few scenes later he’s walking around with no visible evidence that his body had ever been put through the trauma. And minutes after he is in his paranoid depravity, he is presenting a legitimate defense in court. This uneven roller coaster of fortune for Hughes minimizes the power of his highs and lows; they don’t stand out because they’re likely to be ignored shortly.

Despite the film following a considerable portion of Hughes’ career, it still feels like a bit of a light grazing over. I was left with my historical interest in Hughes the man unsatiated. The film definitely is more about Hughes as a person than the things that he does, probably because of the strong performance available with DiCaprio. He’s not the only strong performance, either; in fact the entire cast is very strong.

Cate Blanchett probably commands the most attention for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn. I thought her first scene during the golf outing was a bit exaggerated, but then again, her character is one of many layers and controlled outward appearances, so after you learn that it becomes palatable. Kate Beckinsale is also satisfactory. Gwen Stefani and Jude Law show up in small but pleasant roles. Alan Alda, playing against his usual type, and Alec Baldwin, playing exactly with his own, team up as a very great and entertaining antagonistic duo. And John C. Reilly once again brings a great performance to a secondary but important character who helps bring a down-to-earth perspective in the midst of Hughes’ head-in-the-clouds ideas.

The direction is superb, as should be expected from such a venerable filmmaker. Scorsese’s compositions show great attention to lighting and colors, with many rooms and locales having their own unique color schemes. He uses an upside-down tracking shot at one point, but also includes plenty of long, exploratory shots that offer comprehensive readings. The editing disappointed me a bit, but this was because of mostly minor errors including ones of continuity.

Overall, the film is an enjoyable look into the life of one of America’s most eccentric and ambitious businessmen. Its length begins to be noticeable near the end, and some pretty shallow explanations and turning points definitely detract from the story, but the cast is top-notch and the direction is great. It may not be his best, but it certainly doesn’t detract from Scorcese’s filmography.

Final rating: 6.5/10

–James A. Janisse

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