The Aviator (2004) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, nudity and language
Running Time: 169 min.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Kelli Garner, Danny Huston, Adam Scott, Matt Ross, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law, Frances Conroy, Brent Spiner, Willem Dafoe
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: John Logan
Review published December 24, 2004

Some have called him a genius, while others have called him a madman.  Like so many others who have soared to great heights, he is a lot of both.  The Aviator is based on the life of one of the great pioneers of aviation in the 20th Century, Howard Hughes, who made quite a fortune, and a good share of fame, as one of the most prominent American figures in the 20s through the 40s, which is where John Logan's (The Last Samurai, Sinbad) script dedicates its focus on. 

Looking at the well-traversed subject matter, and the fact that it's a three hour film, it begins to look like it could be a stuffy snoozefest.  Have no fear, because as directed by Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York, Casino), The Aviator is an always interesting and entertaining movie. Scorsese guiltily indulges often in superfluous side stories and eccentric character introduction, and yet it's hard to fault him -- it is all the more fun for it.

Although Hughes' obsessions and compulsions would ultimately get the better of him, The Aviator concentrates more on the legendary entrepreneur's most productive years.  He gained wealth through tool manufacturing, then airplanes, film-making, and even designed a revolutionary style of brassiere.   He courted his share of movie stars, including Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, and rubbed shoulders with the Hollywood elite.  In every respect, Hughes was a superstar, followed in the gossip pages and trade magazines with equal fervor, but very few knew (at the time) of how difficult it was for him in social situations, obsessed with order and cleanliness, finding even the shaking of hands as distasteful.  His design of planes made him millions, but soon his competition tried to muscle him out of the airline business, preying on exposing Hughes' playboy reputation, skeletons in the closet, and his reclusive lifestyle. 

Much of Hughes' life is a matter of public record, endlessly written about and studied over the years, so don't go in expecting many surprises, unless you are completely unfamiliar.  I often employ this phrase, but it's an important one in filmmaking; it's not the content of the story that people find compelling, it's the way you tell it.  The Aviator is far from Scorsese's best film, and in fact, it may actually be the film with the least amount of artistic merit, choosing a more populist style.  That's not a knock on Scorsese in the slightest.  In fact, I came away more impressed with Scorsese's skills as a filmmaker, as he shows that he can make a film meant strictly for broad entertainment, and do it very well.  He continues to surprise.

Also a surprise is the casting of baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio (Catch Me if You Can, The Beach) in the role of Howard Hughes.  The 29-year-old actor must play Hughes from his early 20s, all the way up to his early 40s, and at any age, he doesn't really look a great deal like him.  However, it doesn't take long to accept him in the role, despite the physical differences and not altogether convincing aging (or lack thereof), as he delivers a quality performance that carries the film through some very dark patches. 

Perhaps the only aspect of the film where I found it to be left wanting is the showcasing of the love interests of Howard Hughes.  Cate Blanchett (The Missing, Coffee and Cigarettes) is memorable as Katherine Hepburn, and I think quite good, but I could never feel any genuine love between the two players.  Even less so for Kate Beckinsale (Van Helsing, Underworld), who has the looks but little of the charisma of Ava Gardner, and No Doubt's Gwen Stefani has little to do in her first big acting role but walk and smile as Jean Harlow.  Perhaps Hughes is intended to be a lover who is never more than halfway there, but just from standards of casting, DiCaprio doesn't seem to match up well with any of the female counterparts.

The Aviator is a well made film, and one of the year's best, with enough great moments to make the three hours not seem so long, although some trimming down of certain characters and scenes could still be done (Jude Law's cameo as Errol Flynn seems to be just an excuse to get him in the movie for a few minutes).  Historians may scoff at the historical inaccuracies, while some Scorsese admirers will wish for more of his artistic touches, but taken as a biopic constructed with entertainment in mind, the goods have definitely been delivered.  It won't be the final word on Hughes' life, but as a Hollywood treatment, it has all you'd expect as a film befitting a legend.

 Qwipster's rating::

2014 Vince Leo