The Aviator - Movie Review

  • 01 November 2005

Rating: 4 out of 5

The mythology of Howard Hughes is quite possibly bigger than the man could ever live up to. Already the subject of a handful of movies and over 100 books, the particulars of the Hughes legend are widely known. But leave it to Martin Scorsese to spin the eccentric's life into a more coherent -- if sprawling -- mass.

As its title would imply, The Aviator focuses Hughes through the lens of the airplane, his greatest passion in the world. Hughes is known for many things -- business, movies, his women, hypochondria, political scandal (the lattermost is barely touched in this film) -- but it's his love of and scientific advances with aircraft that have had the most lasting effects on society.

After a short intro, we pick up with Hughes (Leonardo Dicaprio) in the late 1920s, directing his classic film Hell's Angels. Having abandoned Houston due to its predilection for cholera and typhus, Hughes is attacking Hollywood instead and letting his parents' tool business run itself thanks to a new manager (John C. Reilly). Hughes is in the midst of staging the most grandiose spectacle ever on film, a massive war movie with dozens of planes from his own air force. As expected, the film is way over budget (as if there was a budget to begin with), and Hughes's perfection and vanity is causing delays and other problems galore, nearly bankrupting him.

Years later, the movie is finished, and it's a huge hit, and Hughes is back on top. Meanwhile, he turns his attentions to building high-speed aircraft, determined to become the next Lindbergh, to fly faster and farther than any other man. (This he does, in spades, nearly killing himself in the process -- most notably by crashing an experimental spy plane in Beverly Hills.)

And then there are Hughes's great loves, Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) being chief among them. And all the while, poor Howard is going crazy with his famous germ phobia, culminating in a month-long milk bender while locked in his personal screening room.

You might get the impression from this description that The Aviator jumps all over the map with its biography of Hughes, and you'd be right. It's strange, because even though Scorsese has a single subject to follow here (unlike, say, Gangs of New York), it's still tough to put a finger directly on what makes Hughes tick. It's not really Marty's fault -- many other biographers have tried and failed. And The Aviator is a damn good movie. It's just this far from being a classic.

Pacing is the biggest issue: The Aviator yo-yos between scenes of edge-of-your-seat action (namely anything involving airplanes) and moments where nothing much happens. Sure, you need to give your audience a breather once in a while, but when your movie is three hours long, you really don't need to catch your breath quite so often.

DiCaprio once again turns in a nuanced and deeply Method-ized performance as Hughes; he really seems to get what makes the man larger than life, at least as far as a character in the movie. But I have no doubt most of the fawning press will fall on Blanchett, whose performance as Hepburn is more of a creepy impersonation than anything you might call "acting." She doesn't really look like Hepburn, and the accent's not really right, but she has the mannerisms and speech cadence down cold. The effect is a bit like watching a high quality Vegas drag act -- but I can guarantee that the nostalgia set will see it differently; she'll undoubtedly get an Oscar nomination, and possibly win the thing.

My final beef is with The Aviator's prodigious use of CGI, which is overdone to a fault. Frankly, we've seen better phony action sequences in movies made two or three years ago -- and those were with much more complicated models. A biplane isn't that hard to make in a computer -- but it might have helped to suspend disbelief if the movie had a couple of fewer shots of planes flying straight into the camera to the point where both would have been destroyed.

Scorsese doesn't try to hide Hughes's dirty laundry, though he's a bit vague about a certain episode where he hired a 15-year-old girl to basically be his mistress, among other episodes. A lot of The Aviator feels made for cinema insiders: Blink and you'll miss Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Jude Law as Errol Flynn, and a handful of other period stars. (Be sure to watch for the Fatty Arbuckle gag.)

Judicious editing has never been Scorsese's forte, but his work here doesn't suffer as much as it probably ought to considering its indulgent length. Then again, I'm getting a little long-winded here. You've got the information you need, and you know, I really need to wash my hands.

The DVD features a commentary from Scorsese and an impressive bevy of extras on a second disc. Never mind the (one) deleted scene, you also get about a dozen making-of docs that focus on everything from sets to costume design, plus a few featurettes about Howard Hughes. Highly recommended.

Aviator? I don't even know 'er!

Image caption The Aviator

Facts and Figures

Year: 2004

Run time: 170 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 25th December 2004

Box Office USA: $102.6M

Box Office Worldwide: $102M

Budget: $116M

Distributed by: Miramax

Production compaines: IMF Internationale Medien und Film GmbH & Co. 3. Produktions KG, Forward Pass, Miramax Films, Warner Bros. Pictures, Initial Entertainment Group (IEG), Appian Way

Reviews 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Fresh: 186 Rotten: 27

IMDB: 7.5 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Martin Scorsese

Producer: Sandy Climan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Charles Evans Jr., Graham King, Michael Mann

Screenwriter: John Logan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, John C. Reilly as Noah Dietrich, Alec Baldwin as Juan Trippe, Alan Alda as Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, Ian Holm as Professor Fitz, Jude Law as Errol Flynn, Kelli Garner as Faith Domergue, Danny Huston as Jack Frye, Brent Spiner as Robert Gross, Willem Dafoe as Roland Sweet, Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Adam Scott as Johnny Meyer, Matt Ross as Glenn Odekirk, Frances Conroy as Mrs. Hepburn, Stanley DeSantis as Louis B. Mayer, Keith Campbell as Marine

Also starring: Jacob Davich, Edward Herrmann, Jane Lynch, John C Reilly, Amy Sloan, Sandy Climan, Graham King, Michael Mann, John Logan