The Aviator directed by Martin Scorsese, written by John Logan, produced by Sandy Climan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Charles Evans Jr., Graham King and Michael Mann, with DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda. 166 minutes. A Miramax/Warner Brothers production. A Warner Brothers release. Opens Friday (December 17). Rating: NNNN
Has it ever before been possible to hit a multiplex and see five filmed biographies by going from theatre to theatre? Screening this week: Finding Neverland (about J. M. Barrie), Alexander (the Great), Ray (Charles), (Alfred) Kinsey and The Motorcycle Diaries (Che Guevara). With the arrival of the holiday Oscar films, those four will be joined by The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's lengthy study of the young Howard Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. And coming in January is Beyond The Sea, Kevin Spacey's biography of Bobby Darin. (Bobby Darin? Why?)
Biography offers undeniable advantages to both the filmmaker (a ready narrative) and the studio (a recognizable subject).
Scorsese picked up the Aviator project up after Michael Mann dropped it (Mann still has a producer credit), and with it has made his first movie in which Hollywood is his subject. The first half is devoted to Hughes's efforts to make Hell's Angels, his World War I air war epic. (Universal has just released Hell's Angels on DVD, by the way.) Coming off his disastrous battles with Harvey Weinstein over Gangs Of New York, you can see why Scorsese conceived of Hughes's story as that of a man who fought to make his movies his own way.
The Aviator offers a combination of startling directorial style (Scorsese and his effects crew put together one of the most unnerving plane crashes in movie history, and overall the camera moves through the film's sets with an energy that's both restless and focused) and what Orson Welles called dollar-book Freud. Hughes's psychological problems - his obsessive-compulsive behaviour and terror of germs - are seen as the product of an overbearing, protective mother and the loss of his great love, Katharine Hepburn.
Cate Blanchett is a striking Hepburn. She starts by going over the top in her impersonation to establish that she's Hepburn, then pulls back from caricature to performance. The relationship did happen; coming between John Ford and Spencer Tracy, the Hughes relationship interrupted Hepburn's string of married Irish-American drunks as lovers. But the idea that it was the great love of Hughes's life, it's clear from all the Hughes and Hepburn bios, is fiction.
Speaking of which, some screwy chronology here implies an overlap between the Hepburn relationship in the late 30s and Hughes's relationship with Ava Gardner (a miscast Kate Beckinsale), who would have been too young at the time and an uncredited bit player until about 1944.
The problem with The Aviator is that once the Hepburn affair ends, the film goes into a long stretch of Hughes trying to build airplanes and battle the U.S. government for air routes to Europe against evil Pan Am and watching himself as he begins to sink into unshaven nakedness and unlicensed urine storage.
Given some of Scorsese's personal history (he's known as someone who'd black out his house and watch movies all day), you can sense a felt kinship with his subject, but there's a certain emotional disconnect between the audience and the film at this point. I could feel it at the screening and in myself. At a certain point, The Aviator devolves into a story about which rich guy is going to win a huge prize, the crazy rebel incarnated by Leonardo DiCaprio or Alec Baldwin's Juan Trippe, head of Pan Am. Does anybody have a dog in this fight?
This film is a big improvement over Gangs Of New York. It seems to be in the form the director wanted, which alone gives it a big advantage over Gangs' butchered third act. Plus DiCaprio's not up against Daniel Day-Lewis, who was bent on blowing every other actor off the screen.