out of Five
Running time: 173
Impressively directed biopic with a strong central performance by DiCaprio and a terrific supporting cast.
The past decade has been a tough time to be a fan of Martin Scorsese, who arguably hasn’t made a great film since Goodfellas. That said, the release of a new Scorsese movie is always an eagerly-anticipated event, with breathless film fans desperate to discover whether he’s made a film to equal the likes of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, or, at the very least, whether he’s made the film that will finally net him the elusive Best Director Oscar.
As such, The Aviator probably represents Scorsese’s best chance for the ‘GoldenFella’ in ten years, though it still falls short of his best work.
Eccentric Billionaire Industrialist
Written by John Logan and focusing on the period between the 1920s and the late 1940s, The Aviator tells the story of eccentric billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his life as an aviation pioneer and Hollywood mogul. As well as recounting Hughes’s high profile romances, the film also details his battle with sneaky Pan Am chief Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), as well as concentrating on the various aircraft that Hughes built and tested.
In addition, the film deals with the emergence of the mental illness that would eventually turn Hughes into a paranoid, germ-obsessed recluse.
Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent in the lead, brilliantly conveying both Hughes’s forceful energy and also his paranoia and vulnerability. Similarly, Cate Blanchett steals the film with her flawless Katharine Hepburn impersonation (Scorsese ordered her to watch every Hepburn film from the 1930s) and the film is at its best when she’s on screen.
The film’s biggest strength is in its terrific supporting cast. Kate
Beckinsale looks fabulous as Ava Gardner and gets a couple of great moments.
There’s also excellent work from the likes of John C. Reilly, Danny Huston, Ian Holm (very funny), Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda. The one disappointment is Jude Law’s distracting cameo as Errol Flynn - for the length that he's in it, they might as well have cast a lookalike.
The production design throughout the film is astonishing, particularly in Scorsese’s use of varying colour stocks to reflect different periods, as well as his loving recreation of the Hollywood nightclub scene, complete with bizarre-looking singers and dancing girls.
The flying sequences are excellent too, despite being a little CGI-heavy in places. Highlights include an airborne Hughes marshalling the dogfights for his three-years-in-the-making epic Hell’s Angels and a terrifying scene in which he crash-lands in Beverly Hills during a test flight. The scenes with Hughes suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are also effectively handled and are genuinely disturbing to watch.
Too Much Flying…
It may seem a little churlish to expect anything less of a film called The Aviator, but the main problem with the film is that it concentrates too closely on the aviation side of things, when the Hollywood stories are infinitely more interesting.
Thus, we are denied the Jane Greer story (Hughes bought her contract and stopped her from working after she refused to go out with him, effectively killing her promising career) and the famous moment in which Hughes designs a bra for Jane Russell is thrown away in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment, tagged onto the end of a different scene. (Scorsese doesn’t even bother to cast an actress as Jane Russell, which is strange, considering that The Outlaw was the most famous film Hughes directed).
In short, The Aviator is a little bit like Hughes’s own cherished project, the Spruce Goose – it’s a technically stunning achievement, but it only really flies for about an hour or so and it cuts out just at the point where things start to get interesting. (For a look at Hughes’s later life, it’s worth seeking out Jonathan Demme’s Melvin & Howard).
That said, with six Golden Globe nominations, The Aviator has already emerged as one of the front runners for this year’s Oscars, so Scorsese may get his Oscar after all.