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THE AVIATOR (PG-13) (2004)


Official Site

Director: Martin Scorsese

Producers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandy Climan, Charles Evans Jr., Graham King, Michael Mann

Written by: John Logan

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, Kate Beckinsale, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, John C. Reilly


I have a problem with folks mucking about with biographies in their movies. After all, these are cinematic presentations of the lives of real persons who, apparently, were interesting enough to have movies made about them. Howard Hughes had quite a little life, nearly any pre-recluse section of which would make a ripping yarn. Little need to, say, telescope events so that he romances Ava Gardner hard on the heels of his affair with Katharine Hepburn.

But then, for much of today’s moviegoing population, Howard Hughes is not the larger than life mystery man that he was in my youth. Back in the day, a millionaire was special in a way that must seem quaint to those raised in times when Dell and Microsoft millionaires abound and when folks can become celebrities, or at least widely recognized names, with such ease. I know young people who have only the vaguest notion of who Howard Hughes even was. The Aviator won’t do much to enlighten them. Aside from some skin-deep psychology in the first scenes, Martin Scorsese’s movie gives us very little idea of who this man was and what motivated him. Showing tics and compulsions isn’t the same as getting inside a character’s skin, which we know Scorsese can do (see Raging Bull and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). (And I can’t help thinking that he could have put us more in touch with Hughes if he’d made an R-rated movie.) Fortunately, you can tell a heck of a tale just by showing what Hughes did, and The Aviator is a heck of a tale, saved by the fascinating material and by a couple of performances that kick out the jams.

Hughes’s deals and his doings, seized the imaginations of the American public. The notion of his wealth was so fantastic, it seemed like the treasure cave of the 40 thieves. It’s interesting that a biopic about Hughes, who inherited his money, appeals far more than one about the life and times of someone who became fabulously wealthy by thinking for his money. I wouldn’t cross the street to watch a free movie about Bill Gates if Gates himself did a naked toe dance [especially if], would you? No, because there’s no glamour to Bill Gates’ life. Hughes’ had it in spades.

Part of the pleasure of The Aviator comes from its evocation of said glamour. There’s eye candy galore, and not just in the sumptuous sets and costumes, and the very cool aircraft. Dig, for example, the PanAm chief’s tripped-out office, complete with the dome of the heavens and constellations on its ceiling. The Aviator also serves up the eye candy by having a different look for the different eras of Hughes’ life. Sometimes this was accomplished by different, period-specific film processing techniques. There are scenes where Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyes are such a bright blue that they practically pop off the screen. Sometimes the look was signaled by the use of period photoplay makeup, which can be rather jarring. In the early scenes, men have the clearly defined and lipsticked lips of early matinee idols.

If pretty Leonardo DiCaprio has not struck you as an actor to be taken seriously, this movie makes it undeniable. He’s good and he transcends his boyish countenance to make a convincing Hughes from age 21 into his 40s, though you may reflect as you watch that he would’ve made a much better Errol Flynn than Jude Law did. But full marks to the old lions, Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda, who show us how it’s done as they just walk off with the show. Baldwin plays Juan Trippe, the head of PanAm and Hughes’ main airline rival. Alda plays Ralph Owen Brewster, the Maine senator who carries Trippe’s water in Congress and who puts Hughes on the hot seat in Congressional hearings. The best performance in this movie—and I can’t believe I’m writing this—is Alda. I always enjoyed the guy, notwithstanding a reputation as the ne plus ultra of male sensitivity that has made him something of a punchline. Alda’s portrayal of Brewster is revelatory, and no, it’s not just because he’s playing against type. It’s the smile of the crocodile—so polite, so reasonable, but those teeth! The scene where Senator Brewster sits down to lunch with Mr. Hughes is both DiCaprio’s and Alda’s very best in the movie. There’s also a very fine scene with Trippe and Hughes having a business conversation, though they’re on opposite sides of a door, that’s mighty fine. Much has been made of Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn, and one has to admire Blanchett’s go-for-broke performance. But what a thankless role. Those who count themselves movie fans know the genuine article all too well; those unfamiliar with Great Kate will wonder what ails this affected bitch.

The Aviator is a very good example of a latter-day Christmas season movie: It’s big, it’s chockfull of talent, it’s more than two hours long, it’s got loads of crashingly awful Howard Shore music. Plus, it will actually make you want to go out and read about the life and times of Howard Hughes, and maybe even rent Melvyn And Howard. If you’re into Aha! moments, check out the lounge singers at the famed Cocoanut Grove, and see if you can spot Brent Spiner, a.k.a. Mr. Data.

—Roxanne Bogucka

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