Movie Review: The Aviator
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Howard Hughes - visionary airplane tycoon, unbuttoned movie mogul, insatiable woman chaser and mad recluse of Las Vegas - is one of the great, wild figures of American history, a fascinating denizen of both America's shining public and dark private realms. A massively wealthy and powerful nabob who seemed trapped in a teenage boy's fantasy world, Hughes and his story are subjects too vast and tumultuous to capture in any one movie - even a great one.
So to say that director Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," with Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes, misses some of the richest possibilities of its subject or is disappointingly short despite its 166-minute running time, isn't as contradictory as it may seem. A movie, just like a man (like Hughes himself, in fact) can be unfulfilled but remarkable, flawed but still a great surging force, a failure in some respects yet so dazzling a success in others that it doesn't really matter.
"The Aviator," then, is the movie of its year, even against the formidable competition of a near-perfect entertainment such as "Sideways," an incandescent action ballet such as "House of Flying Daggers," or a shattering human testament such as "Vera Drake." "The Aviator" is sumptuously exciting, glowing with expertise, seething with life, gorgeously designed and thrillingly articulated.
Written by John Logan ("Gladiator," "Any Given Sunday"), "The Aviator" begins with Hughes as a boy with his indulgent mother, bathed in golden light. Logan and Scorsese escort us through his impressively tangled and grandiose career, from rich playboy to moviemaker to pilot, plane builder, tycoon and on to the brink of madness.
It starts as a comedy. This boy pilot who loved flight and movie fan who adored big bosoms combines obsessions for the insanely prodigal "Hell's Angels" - the "Titanic" of its day. The inflated production of "Hells Angels," a World War I dogfight movie starring Jean Harlow, provides the film's frantic, funny first act.
Against the odds, we see Hughes conquer Hollywood; win its greatest lady, the young, untamed Kate Hepburn (played by Cate Blanchett, who stunningly captures both the caricature and the reality beneath it); and battle his bluenose nemesis, censor Joe Breen, over the shockers of the Hughes-produced "Scarface" (violence) and "The Outlaw" (sex).
Hughes' vaulting business career is juxtaposed with his round-the-world plane trip, and these high-soaring scenes end with the film's searing first climax (and most extraordinary moment): the crash of his experimental plane in Beverly Hills - a symbolic accident that condemns Hughes to a life of pain and turns the movie permanently dark. Scorsese brings us close enough to feel the fire singe Hughes' mustache and eyebrows.
In those gathering shadows come Hughes' purchase of TWA and his battles with Pan American's bully tycoon, Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin at his smuggest), and Trippe's toady, Maine Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda at his smarmiest), in the famed Senate committee hearing showdown. "The Aviator" carries him only this far, with Trippe and Brewster or with dream-factory denizens like Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Errol Flynn (Jude Law), and suggests the madness that will come, then leaves him dangling. In midair.
We know, or should know, how badly things will end with Howard Hughes. Most of us have heard or read stories of the mad old man, with unkempt beard and elongated nails, padding around a Las Vegas suite in tissue-box shoes, endlessly watching prints of "Ice Station Zebra" and others. Scorsese exposes Hughes, but he also plays on sheer wish fulfillment. Who flew higher more publicly in the '40s? Who realized more fantasies - of wealth, of women, of power and success? Who went crazier?
There is a part of the Hughes story that appeals to almost any guy's secret nuttiness. That's why the boyish DiCaprio winds up looking and sounding so much like Hughes, with his haunted eyes, teen stance, whiny voice and smeary mustache. DiCaprio, who can be lover or loony, brutal or pathetic, moving tragedian or brilliant light comic, is actually a perfect man-boy for all these seasons.
The movie, though, is a vision of Hughes rather than the last word - which is why it isn't ruinous that some of the sequencing seems wrong (Ava Gardner's introduction is off by several years) and why some major episodes are ignored, downplayed or never even attempted. Some examples: 1932's "Scarface," Hughes' and Howard Hawks' involvement with Capone, and later, Hughes' inept running of RKO and his collaboration with the blacklist.
The movie is deliberately presented as a '40s Technicolor dream of bliss and danger in the dark, of high blue skies under a theater ceiling. That seems dangerous, since it's the artificiality of Scorsese's work, the sheer movie-ness of his movies, as in "New York, New York," that sometimes alienates audiences. But here it makes sense, because Hughes is living a movie. His madness suggests a crazy film melodrama, like the RKO bombs Hughes made when he took over the studio.
DiCaprio may strike some as too wimpy-looking for Hughes - but they'll be rejecting (wrongly) the characterization, not the performance. Blanchett cannot be faulted as Hepburn, whom she captures with great flair, Bryn Mawr over Beverly Hills. The other cast members all play with that knifelike accuracy and zest we expect in a Scorsese movie, with a grand movie dream world around them and a great stream of golden oldies providing the aural setting.
In the end, Scorsese and DiCaprio make something truly remarkable out of this nightmarish unveiling and heart-stricken celebration. You can't mourn Hughes here, but you may still feel your heart leap as he crosses the skies or crashes into fire and madness. "The Aviator," one of Scorsese's finest, is the best movie we have right now, because it follows its antihero so brilliantly on his flight into dreams.
Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by John Logan; photographed by Robert Richardson; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; production designed by Dante Ferretti; music by Howard Shore; produced by Michael Mann, Sandy Climan, Graham King and Charles Evans Jr. A Warner Brothers/Miramax release; opens Saturday, Dec. 25. Running time: 2:46. MPAA rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence).
Howard Hughes - Leonardo DiCaprio
Katharine Hepburn - Cate Blanchett
Ava Gardner - Kate Beckinsale
Noah Dietrich - John C. Reilly
Juan Trippe - Alec Baldwin
Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster - Alan Alda
Professor Fitz - Ian Holm
Jack Frye - Danny Huston
Errol Flynn - Jude Law