Revered for his talent and legendary for the films he has made, director Martin Scorsese is no stranger to crafting complex and ambitious films. Yet despite making a mark on American cinema with his early character-driven narratives, Scorsese has recently become indebted to the big-budget, Hollywood studio system that helped bring to life the director’s muddled “Gangs of New York.”
“The Aviator” chronicles 20 years in the life of aviation pioneer and filmmaker Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio). As an oil magnate with unlimited capital, Hughes broke into the film industry in 1927 with his movie “Hell’s Angels.” From there, the paranoid pioneer began a romance with actress Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), invested his time and money into building airplanes and eventually became an indomitable icon of the American spirit.
It was a wise choice for screenwriter John Logan to only focus on a small portion of Hughes’s life, as the years the film covers are arguably his most interesting. Logan establishes Hughes as a powerful force dealing with his own insecurities as well as the haunting memories of his childhood.
Scorsese wonderfully juxtaposes the flashy glitz and glamour of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood with the darkness of Hughes’s troubled life. The special effects — one crash sequence in particular — are dazzling and appropriate. More importantly, Scorsese frames the essence of Hughes: who he was, his revolutionary ideas and just how driven he could be. The film depicts Hughes as a true visionary, a man who changed the world before ultimately being toppled by obsession and fear.
But with a running time of three hours, “The Aviator” could certainly stand to have its wings clipped. Several sequences drag on; Scorsese confounds much of the film’s subtlety with extraneous, boring scenes. The movie also tends to be repetitive, especially when it comes to Hughes and his relationships with famous Hollywood starlets. In its final hour the film slows to a crawl, and the final 30 minutes may leave many audience members looking for an emergency exit.
Although much of the film’s buzz has focused on Scorsese and his chances at an Oscar win, much of the film’s success belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio. As Hughes, DiCaprio proves that he’s the real deal, not just the pretty-boy teen idol of “Titanic” fame. With a Texas drawl, the actor completely loses himself in the role, making Hughes a passionate, charismatic and intense individual who pushed the limits in order to succeed. Yet DiCaprio brings to life the seedier and more guarded Hughes incredibly well, particularly when the aviation genius becomes agoraphobic. His performance is flawless and should be a lock for an Oscar nomination.The supporting cast is just as solid, holding their own with the powerful Dicaprio. Blanchett channels the late Katherine Hepburn, perfectly capturing the iconic actress’s speech and manner. Kate Beckinsale makes a fine Ava Gardner and John C. Reilly shines as Hughes’s right-hand man, Noah Dietrich.
Despite a career-defining performance by DiCaprio, “The Aviator” is at best a flawed and frustrating account of one man’s impact on America. It’s too bad Scorsese didn’t trim the film down — there certainly is some irony to be had in that a man who lived larger than life really deserved a smaller and shorter movie.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars