The Aviator

2004, Movie, PG-13, 166 mins


Francis Ford Coppola had Preston Tucker, Oliver Stone had Alexander the Great, and now Martin Scorsese has the bold, mercurial Howard Hughes, who saw movies, planes and impossibly cantilevered actresses as exemplars of the same lust for quintessence: the fastest planes, the curviest women, the most spectacular movies, bold hedges against his own shredding mind. After a brief prologue locating Hughes' lifelong neuroses in his mother's suffocating attentions, the film focuses on the 20 years between 1927 — when Hughes was hip-deep in making aviation drama HELL'S ANGELS (1930) — and his 1947 trial by the Senate War Investigating Committee. The heir to an enormous drill-bit fortune, young Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes west to silent-era Hollywood, where he merges his interests in flying and moviemaking into HELL'S ANGELS, which sucked up three years and $3.8 million, including a near-total reshoot to accommodate the hot new technology on the lot — sound. At the same time, he launches a research program to break aviation speed records and, ultimately, make flying a commercially viable commodity. Hughes structures the airline that became TWA and battles Pan Am executive Juan Trippe (a splendidly oily Alec Baldwin) for transatlantic routes. Between visionary super-projects, Hughes romances movie stars Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and dallies with other beauties, including starstruck teen Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner). During World War II, his engineers begin the grandest project of them all: a massive wooden troop- and equipment-transport plane they call the Hercules, later derisively dubbed the "Spruce Goose." Brisk, glossy and gloriously art-directed, Scorsese's lavish biopic is a pop trifle, engaging but not compelling. It suffers the usual flaws inherent in the form, including long stretches of uninspired recitation — who did what to whom and what happened next — and Scorsese seems stymied by the problem of dramatizing the inner turmoil of Hughes' disintegrating mind — the very thing he did so masterfully in TAXI DRIVER (1976). DiCaprio is part of the problem — Scorsese's confidence in the baby-faced actor doesn't produce a compellingly weighted performance — and Blanchett's audacious turn as Hepburn is pitched somewhere at the wrong end of the scale that goes from impersonation to performance. The real Hepburn's lock-jawed bossiness and famously eccentric gestures looked mannered on her — on Blanchett, they're grotesque. The film's many glittering cameos include Jude Law as Errol Flynn, pop-tart Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Edward Herrmann as censorship czar Joseph Breen and Willem Dafoe as the sleazy publisher of a Confidential-style scandal rag. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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