Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo Di Caprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate beckinsale, John C Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law, Brent Spiner, Edward Herrmann, Willem Dafoe, Matt Ross, Adam Scott, Kelli Garner, Rufus Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright.
Most people who know anything about maverick multi-billionaire Howard Hughes remember the almost pathetic image of the eccentric recluse living in isolation in a Las Vegas hotel, hidden from the world at large and controlled by his numerous phobias. Scripted by John Logan (Gladiator, etc), and directed by Martin Scorsese, The Aviator is an ambitious biopic which attempts to flesh out the early life of Hughes, about which much less is known. The Aviator concentrates on the period from the late 1920’s to the mid-’40’s, when the maverick businessman, film maker and aviation pioneer was one of the most famous figures in America, before his increasing sense of paranoia, obsessive compulsive disease, failing sanity, and phobias drove him from public life.
The film opens with the young Hughes (played by Leonardo Di Caprio), then barely out of his teens, spending an unprecedented $4 million of his own money to produce the film Hell’s Angels and take on the established studio system that dominated Hollywood. The film painstakingly follows Hughes’ daring exploits as he establishes himself as a legendary aviation pioneer, and then his corporate battles to consolidate his fledgling airline TWA in the cut throat business world of post-W.W.II America. It also charts his playboy life style and his romantic conquests with a series of Hollywood starlets, including Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), who was considered box office poison at the time, the fiercely independent Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and pneumatic blonde bombshell Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani).
Initially The Aviator seems like a strange choice of material for Scorsese, who cemented his cinematic reputation with hard hitting and grittily realistic films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas, but his passion for the material is obvious. Scorsese’s usually muscular direction is more restrained than normal, although the sequence where a plane crashes through several Beverly Hills homes is superb and gets the adrenaline racing.
The film is lavishly mounted and technically well put together, and its recreation of glamorous Hollywood in the 1920’s is superb. Even regular cinematographer Robert Richardson’s visual style subtly changes throughout the film to keep pace with the times, with pastel hues giving way to glorious Technicolor tones.
Ultimately though, The Aviator suffers from the same failing as other recent biopics like the overblown Alexander and the overlong Ray, in that it merely scratches the surface of its subject and fails to give real insight or understanding into its flawed and complex central character. Di Caprio gives a fine performance here as the brash young Hughes, although his array of nervous tics and mannerisms still fail to reach the heights of earlier dramatic performances, like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? or This Boy’s Life, which still remain his best work.
Scorsese has assembled a stellar supporting cast to bring the characters to life, although many get lost in the mix, like Jude Law’s fleeting cameo as Errol Flynn and Willem Dafoe. Only Blanchett, who captures Hepburn’s steely spirit and strength, and a wonderfully smarmy Alan Alda as a corrupt senator trying to discredit Hughes, leave any sort of lasting impression.