January 5, 2005

The Aviator: Into the Air Billionaire Birdman!

by JEREMIAH LEWIS, American Digest Film Editor

Howard Hughes : You feel like a little adventure?
Katharine Hepburn : Do your worst, Mr. Hughes.

The Aviator is one of those rare films that is almost spectacularly good, yet seems to carry with it the inevitability of a short life. Despite Aviator being everything Gangs of New York wasn't (ie. good), it is likely that Martin Scorsese is destined for another near-miss at the Oscars. He'll lose because he isn't good enough to beat the best (this year it's Alexander Payne with Sideways, there's no doubt in my mind).

There, I've said it, and I know I'm likely to cause waves of anger and panicked reactions; don't worry, I'll watch my back.

Martin Scorsese isn't a bad director. In fact, he's a great director, who has made a career of showcasing the self-destruction of icons of

American history and revealing the best and worst (mostly the worst) in all kinds of people. His Little Italy roots have driven him to create hard-bitten films that peel back the layers of glitz, glamour, talent, and seeming uniqueness in people to reveal the seamy, bloody failures, and commonness that is in everyone.

In a way, he's also peeling himself back, ripping away the shell and revealing a great man who is equalled in talent, energy, and craftmanship by other greats in his industry.

This is why Scorsese will never win that gold statue he's chased for too long. The films he chooses and completes are, for the most part, pretty decent flicks. A few of them are even great, living in cinematic memory as classics of the American screen. But take a look at them closely, and you'll find works that are no better or worse than what most any other director of talent in Hollywood can manage.

This isn't a review of Martin Scorsese or his career, but it was important to point that out to explain why The Aviator is a successful film on one hand, but on the other a film marred by the undue influence of having Scorsese's name attached to it. Perhaps it is a case of the Scorsese-fulfilling prophecy.

The Aviator is a film that is not without its flaws, but is, for the most part, a well-constructed scripting by John Logan, with an incredible lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The film follows the life of Howard Hughes, beginning with a dreamy sequence as a child where his mother infuses him with what will become Spermophobia, or fear of germs.

We are then quickly wisked to Hughes' bullheaded days of directing Hells' Angels, the WWI dogfighting story whose production costs soar to $4 million before finally being completed. Hughes' obsession with details, his love of flying and the business of developing and building new airplanes is instantly brought to the fore as, over the course of over three years, he films the most expensive movie to date, filled with the most planes and filmed with the most cameras, and painstakingly perfected with, if not raw talent, then a lot of money and passion. When Hells' Angels becomes the biggest hit in Hollywood, Hughes' financial gambles pay off in a huge return; fame, money, stars and starlets, and dreams of bigger and better.

Much of the first half of the film is devoted to Hughes' relationship with Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett, sporting a broad sweep of an accent). She's brash, loud, and fiercely independent. He's swaggering and large-minded. With his mind on the skies, flying and speed records, and ongoing battles with Juan Tripp of Pan American Airlines (played with gusto and wolfishness by Alec Guinness), Hepburn finds love elsewhere, leaving him with his dreams and obsessions.

Logan's script smartly builds Hughes' deteriorating compulsiveness and phobia throughout, though Scorsese unwisely and to the film's detriment, tarries too long on the extensive dementia that plagued Hughes. One such sequence nearly bogs the film down entirely, and it is only the smartly conceived and written Senate Hearings Committee scenes with a delightfully compromised Alan Alda as Senator Owen Brewster that rights the picture and brings the film back to Hughes' and its core--aviation.

The cast here is ably filled out by some shining stars and relative unknowns: Ian Holm as a meteorologist hired by Hughes to make clouds, John C. Reilly as his accountant Noah Dietrich, Kate Beckinsdale as the lovely Ava Gardner, and Matt Ross as his engineer and friend Glenn Odekirk are exceptional; there's also a nightclub roustabout cameo performance by Jude Law as Errol Flynn. Even Martin Scorsese provides a voice cameo as a projectionist. Delightfully garbed in period production costumes and performing in flawlessly Art Deco sets, The Aviator get high marks for total immersion in the period.

Most notable is DiCaprio, who fills the big, proud, possessive shoes of Hughes with intensity that simply glows on screen. Playing such an exceptional person is a task not for the faint of heart, but DiCaprio seems to do it with ease, especially considering the rather bizarre shooting schedule which required him to put on differing aspects of Hughes' persona out of sequence.

Ultimately, The Aviator is an effort of self-restraint for Scorsese, whose usual touches weren't nearly as acute as usual, except in the case of the drawn-out psychological madness that seems to have defined Hughes' life. Instead of remembering him as an aviation pioneer, a businessman and filmmaker of tenacity and bravura whose need for perfection outweighed any costs, and as a towering man of vision, we are left to dwell on his latter madness and psychosis. This aspect fits well into Scorsese's perfectionist / obsession playbill). It is an unfortunate way to leave viewers.

While it's not enough to detract from the overall success of the picture, it is a weakness that seems to define all of Scorsese's work, and it will cost him once again this Oscar season.

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at jeremiah.lewis@gmail.com

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Posted by Vanderleun at January 5, 2005 10:17 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Do you think Hollywood will ever make a decent version of ATLAS SHRUGGED?

Or is the central message of it anathema to Tinsel Town?

Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at January 5, 2005 9:53 PM

I think it was Alec Baldwin.

Posted by: spongeworthy at January 6, 2005 12:04 PM
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