The Aviator
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All too often, movies based on real-life characters tend to focus on the fall--on drug dependency, alcohol abuse, sexual addiction, upon being a bad father or husband, etc. The qualities that make an artist/entertainer a success frequently go unexplored, or they're simply taken as a matter of fact not worthy of analysis. Look no further than HBO's recent biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers for an example of a movie that nails the subject's bad qualities but hardly even hints at what made him a success.

Martin Scorsese's biopic based on the life of Howard Hughes, The Aviator, doesn't fall prey to this common pitfall. In contrast, its greatest virtue is the amount of time it devotes to Hughes all-consuming desire to succeed at all endeavors in which he becomes involved--and not just to succeed but to totally re-establish the criteria for success. At the same time, Scorsese doesn't back away from those aspects of Hughes' psyche that would prove to be disastrous, principally a debilitating inability to function in public social situations; only when Hughes was guiding the discussion, giving orders, making crucial business decisions, only then could he function in public. But when conversations turned to small talk and inconsequential banter, Hughes froze like a deer in headlights. Scorsese drops plenty of hints of Hughes' psychological problems and compulsion disorder, but his overriding concern is Hughes' desire to push the envelope in all of his endeavors. That's the story here, and it's a fascinating and compelling story.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Howard Hughes, which at first glance might seem like a strange casting choice considering DiCaprio's babyish face. However, The Aviator concentrates on the early part of Hughes' career, from his battles to film Hell's Angels in 1929/1930 to his struggles against the international airline monopoly endorsed by the U.S. Congress in the late '40s. Or in other words, the movie opens when Hughes is about 24 years old and closes when he's about 42, which means the movie concentrates primarily on the time period when Hughes was a Hollywood playboy who wooed Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. The filmmakers also use some subtle makeup to help make DiCaprio look like Hughes (e.g., giving him Hughes' furrowed forehead). So by emphasizing this early portion of Hughes' career, Scorsese gets away with casting a young pretty boy in the lead--and he also spares his audience the horrors of Hughes' final quarter century when paranoia, a compulsion disorder, and possibly dementia made Hughes a complete recluse.

Anyone familiar with Scorsese's career knows he isn't afraid of pointing his camera at the less attractive side of life, as evidenced by movies such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Mean Streets. With The Aviator, however, Scorsese is primarily interested in Hughes' amazing energy and his all-consuming desire to redefine the history of aviation. Beginning with Hughes' attempt to film Hell's Angels, a WWI drama about fighter pilots, Scorsese shows us the extreme measures that Hughes took to capture his vision on film. Hughes refilmed fight scenes ad nauseum and enlisted a battalion of planes and cameras to capture the movie's dogfight finale. In this sequence, Hughes refuses to think in conventional terms. He's always struggling to invent ways to improve the results. This same approach would guide Hughes' attempts to build faster and better airplanes. Hughes never allows his thinking to be restricted by the amount of money in his bank account. Hughes was also an accomplished pilot, which allows us the added thrill of seeing him take his experimental planes on test flights and even setting a speed record in 1935. This also leads to the horrific test plane crash in 1946 that nearly killed Hughes when the jet's engine failed and the plane crashed in a residential area.

This story of Hughes' accomplishments is backed with scenes from his private life, with the most important scenes being devoted to Hughes' relationship with Katharine Hepburn. Cate Blanchett takes this role, using a chirpy, clipped voice very similar to Hepburn's own. At first, Blanchett is a bit much. These scenes are supposed to represent Hepburn away from the public eye, but Blanchett performs in overdrive, as if Hepburn had no down time. However, that's exactly the movie's point. Hepburn was a social misfit like Hughes who long ago forgot how to settle back and just be herself. She always played the star, her nose pointed toward the heavens, her shoulders thrown back, and her voice striking like a viper. In one of the movie's key scenes, Hughes accompanies Hepburn when she visits her family, and Hughes is like a fish out of water. With a family of New England WASPs swarming around him, insisting he make small talk and stomping on anything of substance that he attempts to say, Hughes shrinks away from the overbearing Hepburn clan, which leads to the inevitable parting with Hepburn herself--an unfortunate parting, as the movie argues, because they were good for each other.

Other famous actresses from Hughes' past include Ava Gardner (played by Kate Beckinsdale) and Faith Domergue (played by Kelli Garner). But these relationships aren't given the same detail as the Hughes-Hepburn relationship, no doubt because Scorsese doesn't see these relationships as critical in defining Hughes.

Other key characters in The Aviator are Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe (played with graceful officiousness by Alec Baldwin) and U.S. Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (played as a smiling predator by Alan Alda). In bit parts, we also see Jude Law as Erroll Flynn (but Law lacks the imposing physical presence of Flynn) and Gwen Stephani of the rock band No Doubt as Jean Harlow (but Stephani has no acting chops so her performance is rather nondescript and contains none of Harlow's fire).

Based on a screenplay by John Logan (who also wrote Gladiator and The Last Samurai), The Aviator is huge and sprawling, but it always keeps the focus tightly upon Hughes' vibrant but fragile psyche. It's clear from the great care that Scorsese took in presenting Hughes' considerable accomplishments that he has considerable respect for the man. While so many depictions of Hughes concentrate on the final quarter century on his life and the deterioration of his mind, Scorsese finds the humanity within the legend and gives us a full portrait without dwelling on the end game. We get one extended example of the debilitating anxieties that led to Hughes' eventual hibernation. In this example, Hughes refuses to leave a screening room at the TWA office. For week after week, he prowls the room stark naked, surviving on milk and urinating into empty milk bottles. By taking this style of approach, Scorsese allows us to see the conditions that would eventually destroy Hughes, but at the same time he makes sure we understand Hughes' successes. Balancing these two extremes is no small feat; it makes The Aviator one of the best biopics ever produced by Hollywood.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Miramax Films
Movie Web site: The Aviator



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