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USA 2004
Directed by
Martin Scorsese
166 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Aviator

Martin Scorsese’s biopic is more concerned with Howard Hughes' mental history than it is with the facts o the eccentric multi-millionaire’s life although we do get the broad outlines of that sufficiently sketched in. The approach is announced in the opening scene in which a naked prepubescent boy is being bathed by his attractive mother who is getting him to spell out 'quarantine' as she warns him of the many contagious diseases there are out there that might make him ill if not careful.  It is a presage of the obsessive-compulsive disorder which eventually turned Hughes into the world’s most famous recluse.

John Logan's richly woven script follows Hughes from being a young buck who inherits a fortune made by his father servicing the oil industry to the shell of a man twenty years later as he sinks his money into his two passions, aviation and the movies and in the process takes on the conservative ethos of mainstream America.

The film opens with him at the helm of Hell's Angels his most successful movie and an infamously excessive production (with a $3.8 million budget it was at the time the most expensive motion picture yet made), follows his Branson-like tilt at making air travel accessible to the American public and the attempts of Maine Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) and Pan-Am president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) to stop him, clocks his affairs with Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) along with a bevy of aspiring starlets, and gives a glimpse at his controversial but not good Western The Outlaw which at best made twin stars of Jane Russell’s breasts. To this isadded the building of the XF-11 spy plane in which he is nearly killed in a test flight (an impressively well-realized SFX scene) and ends with his building the Spruce Goose, a 400,000-pound behemoth with a 320-foot wingspan.

It’s a life filled to the fullest and no doubt Scorsese felt at least some degree of identification with Hughes’s visionary tendencies (he has certainly passed him as film-maker) and perhaps even his perfectionist standards.  Directorially, particularly in the second half of the film, Scorsese shows inventiveness with some nice flourishes whilst his usual production team give a top drawer showing across all departments.

When we first encounter DiCaprio he looks and acts like any young firebrand  but by the film’s end he has been remarkably transformed into the iconic image in what is an intense yet touching performance. One is however, slightly disconcerted that he seems remarkably unscarred by his near fatal spy plane crash. Blanchett does a wonderful turn as Hepburn but Beckinsale fails to impress with her Gardner and Jude Law's cameo as Erroll Flynn seems unnecessary.

The Aviator was not particularly well received on its release but for my money it is one of Scorsese's better films and should improve with age.




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