An enormously entertaining slice of biographical drama, “The Aviator” flies like one of Howard Hughes’ record-setting speed airplanes. While it doesn’t dig deeply into the psychology of one of the most famous industrialists and behavioral oddballs of the 20th century, Martin Scorsese’s most pleasurable narrative feature in many a year is both extravagant and disciplined, grandly conceived and packed with minutiae. Although he was not exactly born for the role, Leonardo DiCaprio is in terrific movie star mode portraying an often inscrutable man whose passion for planes, motion pictures and beautiful women is emphatically expressed. The director/star combo assures considerable public interest, but the film’s commercial fate hangs on two big ifs — the domestic Miramax release building momentum as a major awards contender into the new year and the lavish period piece capturing the interest of younger auds.
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Concentrating on the key years of the young Hughes’ greatest accomplishments, from his splash in late-’20s Hollywood with his World War I epic “Hell’s Angels” to setting flying records in the ’30s and taking on the U.S. government and aviation giant Pan Am in the ’40s, screenwriter John Logan made difficult choices about what to dwell upon and what to sweep over in montage-like fashion. He has done so intelligently, with preference for his subject’s maniacal industriousness but with enough private moments to provide touchstones for his increasingly eccentric traits.
Scorsese, who came aboard the project when Michael Mann decided he couldn’t do a third big bio picture in a row, has injected his own mania for cinema into Hughes’ obsession for aviation and, secondarily, for filmmaking and actresses. Resulting energy propels every aspect of the production, notably the performances, exceptionally dense soundtrack and magnificent design. If “Gangs of New York” felt heavy and never found its proper rhythm, “The Aviator” runs like a dream on all cylinders with scarcely a sputter or a cough.
After an odd opening in which Hughes’ mother gives her young son an overly attentive bath during a flu quarantine, action jumps to 1927 Hollywood, when the 21-year-old Hughes, already wealthy from the family oil well drill bits business, sank millions into “Hell’s Angels.” Hughes, learning to direct on the job at his own expense, was forced to remake most of his silent picture when sound came in, driving the production schedule to three years.
Scorsese’s action-painting evocation of the laborious shoot is exhilarating and amusing, combining footage from the actual picture with shots of dozens of biplanes diving in dizzying patterns, often with Hughes himself up in the air with a camera. At one point, the director halts production until Mother Nature can provide the background he wants — clouds that resemble giant breasts.
Although Louis B. Mayer is seen being dismissive of the brash upstart at the Cocoanut Grove (just one of many locations lovingly recreated by production designer Dante Ferretti), film underplays the extent to which the outsider was shunned by the studio heads. Their hostility pushed Hughes into an increasingly adversarial stance toward Hollywood, a position that foreshadowed his later contentious relationships with the aviation industry and Washington.
Hughes breaths a sigh of relief after the successful premiere of “Hell’s Angels” at Grauman’s Chinese, an event stunningly rendered via staged material and colorized vintage newsreel footage; with Hollywood Boulevard festooned with large model planes dangling overhead, preem drew a reported 500,000 people and served as the inspiration for Nathaniel West’s “The Day of the Locust.”
As the action jumps to the mid-’30s, Hughes lands a plane at the beach location of “Sylvia Scarlett” to fetch Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) for a round of golf. This cockeyed romance, which lasts considerably longer in the film than it did in real life, proves as charming as it is unlikely, thanks in large measure to Blanchett’s dead-on rendering of the star’s hauteur and vocal peculiarities.
Once the startling impact of her impersonation has subsided, the relationship successfully defines itself as a pairing of two completely self-absorbed misfits. The bond is strengthened by the rarefied air they share as two of the most famous people in the world, romanticized in a lovely “date” on Hughes’ plane over Los Angeles at night and unsettled in a brilliantly funny sequence in which Hepburn takes her beau to the family compound in Connecticut, where the eccentric clan’s air of self-obsessed superiority makes the famous daughter look like a piker (Frances Conroy’s cameo as Mrs. Hepburn is indelible).
Although he continued to dabble in pictures, aviation consumed Hughes far more. Pic raptly documents his creation of the H-1 Racer, a sleek silver bullet in which he set the world speed record; his record-setting 1936 ’round-the-world flight (partly conveyed by doc footage in which DiCaprio’s face has been laid, “Zelig”-like, over the real thing); his 1946 test flight of the XF-11, which concluded with its pilot’s nearly fatal crash into several houses in Beverly Hills, a spectacle rendered here with incredible force and detail; his support for the swan-like Constellation passenger plane, which made his TWA into a world-class airline, and his contentious construction of the world’s biggest flying machine, the Hercules, or Spruce Goose, the one and only flight of which provides the picture with its stirring climax.
Since planes represent one of the great subjects for motion picture cameras, enthusiasts will have a field day watching all these amazing aircraft onscreen, both in live-action and in eminently satisfying CGI representations. It’s not that you can’t tell when a flight is being digitally rendered, but it’s all done amazingly well — the degree of artifice surrounding the entire picture allows the computer work to fit in gracefully rather than to stick out.
Said artifice is established by a visual style devised by Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson that emphasizes the primary colors dominant in the Technicolor images of ’30s and ’40s Hollywood, albeit with subtle gradations that shift according to the era.
While “The Aviator” is not remotely intended to look or feel like a classical studio picture — there’s far too much movement and razzle-dazzle — Scorsese artfully uses all the latest techniques in the service of evoking the periods in question. In every respect, the film is a technological marvel.
Dramatically, story crescendos with the rivalry between Hughes and Pan Am’s Juan Trippe (a very effective Alec Baldwin), whose monopoly on international air travel by a U.S. company Hughes means to break with his TWA Constellations. Trippe (whose office in the upper realms of the Chrysler Building is a wonder to behold) acquires a powerful crony in Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda, superb), who intends to crush Hughes in Senate hearings pinned to the tycoon’s alleged squandering of government money on failed airplane projects.
Rooted, according to the script’s logic, in his mother’s protective preoccupation, Hughes exhibits an increasing phobia about germs, expressed in ever-more bizarre behavior in public restrooms, as well as insecurity about his deafness and mental stability. He comes temporarily unhinged after his 1946 plane crash, locking himself in his screening room and growing a beard, long hair and nails while sexy images of Jane Russell flicker on the screen, all intimating the bizarre accounts of his reclusive later life.
The huge number of women Hughes collected over the years can only be glancingly noted.
Of them, just two beyond Hepburn are even shown, Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner), a hapless teenager Hughes groomed for never-to-be stardom, and, more prominently, Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). Although the latter pops up, mostly argumentatively, several times, the nature of her relationship with Hughes remains unclear (by her own testimony, they never slept together), giving their scenes fu
Physically, DiCaprio is not as tall, rangy or rugged as the real Hughes, and the remnants of his baby face are at utter odds with the angles and creases of Hughes’ mug. But the actor completely engages with the role in all the ways that count, conveying utter absorption in his work, driving perfectionism, masculine allure, public reticence, increasing eccentricity and simmering hostility for anything that stands in his way.
One can still imagine that Warren Beatty would once have been the ideal bigscreen Hughes, and regret that Beatty never managed to make what should have been his great romance of capitalism to match his epic romance of communism, “Reds.” But DiCaprio puts his imprint on the part with surprising effectiveness.
Aside from members of Hughes’ inner circle played with intentional modesty by John C. Reilly, Ian Holm, Matt Ross and Adam Scott, other characters sweep in and out like gusts of wind: Among them are Errol Flynn (a vivaciously insouciant Jude Law), Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani with a couple of lines), MPAA censorship czar Joseph Breen (a harrumphing Edward Herrmann) and a sleazy magazine publisher (Willem Dafoe).
Ever-present music plays a key role in sustaining the film’s effervescence, as Howard Shore’s propulsive original score meshes seamlessly with an enormous assortment of popular tunes from the periods played boisterously in nightclub settings or subtly in the background.