For while his newest film, the Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator,” features Leonardo DiCaprio in what is arguably the best performance of the year, the rhythm and pacing of this nearly three-hour epic misfires a few too many times for the film to be the slam-dunk it needed to be in this sadly mediocre year in cinema, in order to finally secure the director his long-overdue Oscar.
Personally, I could care less how accurate a depiction of a person’s life a biographical film is, as long as it tells a definitive story. I doubt there has been a biopic, from Adam and Eve through Alexander the Great, from Jesus to John F. Kennedy, that didn’t fudge the truth in some ways to make for a better narrative. However, “The Aviator” feels more like Howard Hughes’ Greatest Hits, touching upon a great many incidents which helped shape the young man who would become one of the world’s wealthiest people during his formative years (1927-1947), but never really delving into the why aspect of the situations. Most everyone already knows Howard Hughes became rather eccentric in his later years, and the film does spend sufficient time showing how obsessive Hughes could be about certain projects, but does little in examining the reason, outside of a short prelude where we see a young Hughes being bathed by his mother in the study, because there was an outbreak in a nearby town. We also get to see Hughes’ meticulous attention to every detail while making “Hell’s Angels,” but no time is spent on why every detail was important enough for Hughes to spend three years and more than four million dollars on. We get to watch Hughes accomplish a great many things, including structuring the airline that would become TWA, and build the plane that would dwarf every other plane ever made (and likely to ever be made), but never see what drove him to take on the powerful owner of Pan Am Airlines or continue to build (and personally fund) the construction of a two wartime planes long after the war they were being built for was over.
The main challenge of a movie like “The Aviator” is how to make a not very likeable character such as Howard Hughes and make audiences want to spend time with him. Leonardo DiCaprio, a producer on the film who worked with a series of directors to get this created, makes the film work as well as it does, for he makes you feel what the film often is unable to show, Hughes’s passion for what he wants. DiCaprio, a vastly underrated actor, forces us to not only feel but EXPERIENCE Hughes’ pain as he slowly sinks into madness. It is the best performance of DiCaprio’s career and one of the bravest performances of the decade. Cate Blanchett, as close to a leading lady as “The Aviator” could have, does an admirable job as one-time Hughes girlfriend Katherine Hepburn, a performance which begins as a tad too much mimicry at the beginning before settling in as a comfortable homage of the screen legend before her exit. Screen beauty Kate Beckinsale may not look as much like Ava Gardner as Ms. Blanchett does as Ms. Hepburn, but is just sexy enough to convincingly play the iconic screen goddess. And the gaggle of actors, ranging from major stars Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe and John C. Reilly to the dependable but not as famous Frances Conroy, Edward Hermann, Danny Huston, Matt Ross and Brent Spiner, whom all show up in what are essentially glorified extended cameos, give the best performances they can which such little time to establish a fully realized character.
Perhaps it is because Jude Law was cast in the role, and featured prominently in several articles about the production earlier in the year, but there was no need for Errol Flynn within this story, and the few scenes with Law as Flynn are filler that could have been removed without losing anything but screen time. The character of Errol Flynn adds nothing to Scorsese’s narrative, and one can only hypothesize what was left in the film and not on the proverbial cutting room floor has everything to do with the stature of the star in the role, and to show off more of that fabulously decadent Coconut Grove set, then it did with narrative aesthetics. If Flynn and Hughes were anything more than occasional drinking buddies at the Grove, you wouldn’t know that from here. Much can also be said of pop tart Gwen Stefani’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as Hughes muse Jean Harlow, who appears briefly during the premiere of “Hell’s Angels” in the first half hour and disappears completely.
By this time, you might feel I felt “The Aviator” to be much of a waste of time, which is very much not the case. While the film does drag in a number of scenes, and could have used one additional pass in the editing room to trim some of the excess and truly make this movie a lean and mean machine, there is much going for it. Film is a visual medium, and this is one of the most perceptibly sumptuous feasts in theatres. Scorsese and his team of cinematographer Robert Richardson, costume designer Sandy Powell and production designer Dante Ferretti have spared no expense in bringing the golden era of Hollywood back to vivid life, including building a full-sized period replica of the facade of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for the “Hell’s Angels” premiere sequence. If the real Hollywood of that time was anything like the way it was depicted in “The Aviator,” there is little wonder people still clamor to know about the period three quarters of a century later. The film best comes to life, not surprisingly or coincidentally, during four aviation sequences which show why Martin Scorsese is as revered by cinema fans worldwide: the aerial sequences during the filming of “Hell’s Angels,” the 1935 test flight of the H-1 Racer, where Hughes sets a then record-shattering world speed record of 351 miles per hour, 1947’s flight of the Spruce Goose (which ends the film) and, most spectacularly, the July 7th, 1946, test flight of Hughes’ XF-11 spy plane, which ended in a fiery crash into a trio of houses in Beverly Hills, and is the single most exciting and scary sequence in film this year. Much of the film lacks the propinquity which makes a Martin Scorsese film unique. While mediacy in and of itself is not a bad thing to desire in someone else’s film, a Scorsese film should always be in motion, and not feel like it could have been directed by anyone else.
Perhaps it is unfair to judge a Martin Scorsese film to a higher standard than an average film. Had a lesser filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson made the exact same film, the reaction most likely would be effluvial praise. It’s not that Scorsese has failed this time around. “The Aviator” is a good movie with several exciting action sequences and the single best acting performance of the year. It’s just not the best movie this director was capable of making.Rating: B+