The Aviator Review
At the time of writing, it seems a reasonable bet that Martin Scorsese will win his first, decidedly overdue Best Director Oscar for The Aviator, a lavish account of twenty years in the life of Howard Hughes. While all cineastes will doubtless welcome an official recognition for one of the world’s finest filmmakers, it’s a shame that it would be won for such a relatively minor work. It’s not a bad film by any means – indeed, it’s often very good – but you never get the impression that there was any pressing need for it to be made. In Scorsese’s greatest films - Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age Of Innocence - there’s a forceful propulsion coming from within, a sense that the director is being impelled to make them by something deep inside of him. What we get in The Aviator - as we got in Gangs of New York and Bringing Out The Dead - is highly competent filmmaking with some praiseworthy elements.
Beginning in 1925, the film – written in rather irksomely episodic fashion by John Logan – traces twenty crucial years in the life of Howard Hughes (DiCaprio), a millionaire who refused to be content with the fortune he made in drill bits. Hughes was a remarkable man who set out to conquer new territory with the eccentric determination of an Alexander. In 1925, he began making Hell’s Angels, a two million dollar silent picture which, upon completion in 1927, he partially re-shot as a sound film for an extra 1.8 million dollars. It lost him over a million dollars of his own money but, undaunted, he continued as an independent Hollywood producer, building up his own collection of starlets including the infamous pulchritudinous Jane Russell and the not noticeably talented Faith Domergue. He also squired some of the most famous women in Hollywood, notably Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Beckinsale). But his most abiding passion was for aviation and breaking air speed records, even if this meant exposing himself to a suicidal level of danger. Meanwhile, his paranoia and obsession with keeping clean threatened to lose him everything he owned.
This is all fascinating stuff and on the level of a biopic, it’s quite effective. Scorsese begins with a brief flashback to Hughes’s childhood which is presumably meant to explain the multi-millionaire’s legendary paranoia about cleanliness – his mother told him that he was never safe from the forces of dirt and disease which were everywhere. This seems terribly simplistic and somewhat Freudian to me – and I was amused to note that in Alexander, Oliver Stone also adopts a ‘cherchez la mere’ psychological explanation. It also troubles me slightly that this scene – shot in glowing shades of brown and gold – is extremely similar to the one which begins Scorsese’s last film, Gangs of New York. There’s even a similar, sudden cut to Hughes as a twentysomething which resembles the time-shift in Gangs. This kind of repetition usually means that a director is losing interest in his material and the plodding pace of the film reinforces this impression. The film drifts from scene to scene with little urgency and its only during the big set-piece crash sequence at the ninety minute stage that Scorsese seems fully engaged. Ultimately, the film builds to two climaxes which are intercut with each other. One – involving PanAm and Senator Owen Brewster’s attempt to break up the Hughes air empire - is weirdly reminiscent of A Few Good Men and the other is a bit like something Philip Kaufman left out of The Right Stuff. There’s no obvious reason for this film to last 170 minutes and the drifting along to no clear purpose which was obvious in 1997’s Kundun is just as plain here.
Not that it’s a badly directed film – although it does seem a rather unfocused one. Scorsese’s command of actors is as strong as ever and the cast is packed with great performances. It’s hard to choose one or two but I’d have to mention Danny Huston, John C. Reilly and three great old hams – Ian Holm, Alan Alda and Alex Baldwin. Baldwin in particular is so marvellously watchable these days that he’s fast becoming my favourite screen actor. The acting laurels clearly go to Cate Blanchett, who is so convincing as Hepburn that she’s slightly unnerving and the brickbats have to go to Kate Beckinsale who makes Ava Gardner, one of the most charismatic and beautiful of screen stars, look like she was nothing particularly special. She hasn’t even got the voice right. As for Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s in every scene and he often supplies whatever energy the scenes possess. DiCaprio is a very hard-working actor and he gets Hughes’s jabbing ‘I Want’ personality just right but he’s less convincing as the middle aged billionaire going to pieces. But it’s a very brave performance from an actor who, somewhat handicapped from critical appreciation by his good looks, is getting better all the time and may one day become a great movie star.
Technically, the film is as flawless as you’d expect it to be. Robert Richardson’s Scope cinematography is especially interesting. For the first half of the film, the film moves from a simulacrum of two-strip Technicolor until we get to 1935 and go into gorgeous three-strip Technicolor. Thelma Schoomaker’s editing is immaculate and Howard Shore impresses with a very quirky, sometimes rather atonal music score. The use of special effects seems to bore Scorsese judging by interviews, but the aerial scenes – with liberal use of CGI - are often breathtaking.
But it’s not quite enough. Scorsese used to make films which vibrated with life and the exciting possibilities of cinema. The Aviator could have been put together by any good director currently working. Although it partially deals with a subject close to Scorsese’s heart – the Golden Age of Hollywood – there’s no feeling of personal obsession coming through here, certainly not as there was in, for example, Raging Bull where the almost metaphysical drive to understand and love Jake LaMotta – the least understandable and loveable of men – was evident in every single scene. There isn’t even the fascinating and unusual surface detail which was found in Gangs of New York. Ultimately, The Aviator is a richly furnished, elegantly made film but, like Hughes’s huge Spruce Goose, it’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.