Aviator, The (United States/Japan, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Had Martin Scorsese made this film 25 years ago, it would have been greeted with a surge of curiosity. Howard Hughes, one of the richest eccentrics of the 20th century, was still fresh in the public's mind at that time. Now, more than a quarter century after his death, his memory has faded like an old photograph. With The Aviator, Scorsese's aim is not to resurrect the paranoid recluse who hid from photographers and the public during the last 20 years of his life, but to show a younger, more vital businessman and adventurer, whose battles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder foreshadowed his late-life mental deterioration.

The Aviator is a good, but not great, filmed biography, and continues Scorsese's recent flirtation with mediocrity. Since Casino, there has been a distinct lack of energy and creative drive in the master director's movies. Kun-Dun, Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York, and now The Aviator have all been respectable efforts, but they are in the minor leagues when compared to Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. It is unfair to expect Scorsese to fashion a masterpiece every time out, but this is an unusually long dry spell. One could make the argument that he needs once again to team with Robert De Niro. For now, however, it appears that Leonardo DiCaprio has replaced De Niro as Scorsese's leading man. DiCaprio not only headlines Gangs of New York and The Aviator, but he has been picked to star in the director's next movie (The Departed).

The Aviator skims across roughly two decades in Hughes' life, from the late 1920s until the late 1940s. The film opens with the millionaire sinking huge sums of money into his Hollywood dream epic, Hell's Angels (which would garner him more critical and public acclaim than anything else he did in the movie business). It ends with his getting the "Spruce Goose," an aircraft capable of carrying 700 people, into the air despite a 320-foot wingspan and a 400,000-pound weight. In between, he makes more movies, become the primary stock holder in TWA, is nearly killed while test piloting the XF-11 spy plane, sets various aviation records, and enters into pitched battles with Maine Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) and Pan-Am president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin).

The movie also details, to one degree of another, some of Hughes' most publicized romances. The one that is presented best is his dalliance with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), which is depicted from witty beginning to acrimonious end (when she leaves Hughes for Spencer Tracy). Less satisfying glimpses are provided of his liaisons with actresses Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner). The Aviator also spends perhaps too much time showing Hughes' battles with OCD and other mental disorders, including a lengthy sequence in which he is sitting naked in a "germ-free" zone watching movies.

Historically, The Aviator is probably the most accurate of any of the recent flood of bio-pics. Unlike Ray, Beyond the Sea, and even (to a lesser extent) Kinsey, the film does not attempt to soft-peddle the central character's faults or lionize him. That may have to do with perspective. Since Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis) have no emotional investment in Hughes' story, they are able to present a more balanced view of the subject. Unfortunately, The Aviator suffers from the problem facing nearly all movies that span long periods: a scattershot, episodic approach. We feel that we're watching highlights from Hughes' life rather than a seamless story.

The Aviator's first of three hours is engrossing. After exploring the tribulations faced by Hughes in making the most expensive motion picture to-date ($3.8 million), it moves on to chronicle his romance with Hepburn. Cate Blanchett's whirlwind performance, easily the best by a supporting actress this year, enlivens the film for about 40 minutes. She energizes The Aviator and we're hardly aware of the passage of time. Then she's gone and there's still more than 90 minutes of footage to wade through. The second half of the film is unevenly paced and has a tendency to drag, although proceedings are enlivened by a terrifying plane crash. Story-wise, there are also some missteps (although these could be the result of cuts made to reduce the running length). Hughes' affairs with Ava Gardner and Faith Domergue are poorly developed and Gardner's "rescue" of Hughes from a mental sinkhole is badly motivated and not credible.

As Hughes, Leonardo DiCaprio is usually solid, but rarely a stand-out. That distinction rests with Blanchett. DiCaprio has a tendency to overact when presenting the character's mental turmoil. (Compare his work here to Russell Crowe's in A Beautiful Mind.) Most of the supporting cast is solid, with nice turns by Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, and John C. Reilly. Cameos include Gwen Stefani, Brent Spiner, Willem DaFoe, and Jude Law. But there is one horrible example of mis-casting: Kate Beckinsale. Although the British actress bears a passing physical resemblance to Gardner, her performance is a black hole. She brings nothing to the role, sleepwalking her way through a part that should have had a lot more heat. The fact that she essentially replaces Cate Blanchett (filling the romantic void left when Hepburn moved on to Tracy) makes her inadequacy all the more apparent. It's as if her recent immersion in vampire movies has sucked out Beckinsale's life. And it's unusual for a Scorsese movie to have such a bad "miss" in a role.

Even if the subject had more appeal to mainstream audiences, the nearly three-hour length would cap the interest. Tighter editing is needed. Instead of incorporating half-told secondary stories (such as Hughes' liaison with Domergue), these could have been cut to better streamline the central narrative. The color they add is not worth the havoc the wreak upon the overall plot. For those with an interest in Hughes and/or the era in which he operated, The Aviator represents a flawed but entertaining (and perhaps informative) tale. Others, unfortunately, will likely be more bored than engrossed once the first hour has passed.

Aviator, The (United States/Japan, 2004)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, Alec Baldwin, Ian Holm, Alan Alda
Screenplay: John Logan
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Music: Howard Shore
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 2:48
U.S. Release Date: 2004-12-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1