Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a classic silver screen spectacle. It is probably one of his most accessible films ever and ironically one of his most enjoyable. It is not as grounbreaking or as deep as his previous masterworks such as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, but it has a refreshing engaging nature somewhat missing from those other films. This is a welcome surprise especially being his follow up film after the big disappointment with his previously ambitious but lethargic epic Gangs of New York. Mr. Scorsese with the aid of screenwriter John Logan and a complex performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, have succeeded in creating a historical epic that is both accessible and complex, uplifting but not afraid to look into the dark side of things and wildly entertaining considering its length .
The film opens with a very creepy scene in which Howard Hughes's mother is bathing her young son that bears implications of incest and hints how her paranoia and overprotective nature may have molded Hughes’ destiny. Soon after that, the story moves to the late 20’s in which Hughes, as a millionaire kid who just inherited his father’s oil empire, is in the midst of personally financing his WWI epic, “Hell’s Angels”. The script covers two more decades of Hughes’ life consisting of several self-defining moments that include many more movies, his creation of TWA, setting aviation records, plane crashes, affairs with Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, battles with Maine Senator Ralph Owen Brewster and Pan-Am president Juan Trippe, all while struggling with his mental health.
The script by John Logan finds the right balance between intimate scenes and spectacle with well developed characters and unafraid of humor. Mr. Logan avoids the episodic nature of most Hollywood biopics by focusing on Hughes' most succesful years and by wisely omiting Hughes’ final hermit days. The film ends in an upbeat mood with the successful flight of Hughes 700 people water/air carrier, the "Spruce Goose”, but not without foreshadowing Hughes' downfall in his later years with plenty of ominous signs intertwined in the narrative.
Scorsese’s bold cinematic style is more alive and on-target in The Aviator that it has ever been in the past decade. His stylized approach works very well in The Aviator because Hughes' real life suggests a crazy filmed Hollywood melodrama as it was. In his visual recreation of the glory days of Hollywood, Scorsese goes as far as using a primitive two-color-strip Technicolor process that was used in the early years of cinema depicted here. His camera work and fast editing techniques are brilliantly used to portray the infernal wave of flashbulbs and paparazzi that followed Hughes rise to fame. He stages the dogfights during the filming of Hells Angels with brilliance, vitality and amazing clarity. The other aerial sequences are filled with beautiful and rapturous images that heighten the romantic aspects of flying while his camera swoops around the aircrafts almost ballet-like in the wonder style of old movie musicals. His visualization of Hughes' madness and alienation is most effectively represented in a variety of scenes bordering on the surreal, set in public bathrooms, at times reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining. In another brilliant moment Scorsese superimposes images of stunning, hand-tinted Zeppelin explosions of real footage from Hells Angels on a naked Hughes while he howls in pain in his "germ-free" screening room. Other than Kubrick I cannot think of any other director that can visualize alienation with such dramatic drive, like Scorsese does in this film. There is also a sensational sequence when Hughes crash-lands in Beverly Hills, his plane's wing tip slicing through living room walls seen from the inside, that is easily one of Scorcese’s most accomplished action sequences ever.
Leonardo DiCaprio may not resemble the real Hughes physically but does have the same raw presence. The role requires a lot from him and he delivers it. He captures Hughes's oddball charm and confidence in the early portion of the film, and is fascinating and heartbreaking as his madness takes over. Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, is easily the best performance by a supporting actress this year. In less capable hands, this role could have become a caricature but Ms. Blanchett becomes the full-fleshed embodiment of Hepburn (forced laugh, toss of the head and stentorian declarations included). Kate Beckinsale is sultry and sexy as Ava Gardner while John C. Reilly, Ian Holm, Alan Alda, Jude Law and Alec Baldwin are all excellent in supporting roles. Another highlight is Howard Shore's brilliant score and the jazz/swing soundtrack beautifully integrated with the story.
The Aviator reconfirms Scorcese’s brilliance with the film medium and is a surprising rare glimpse of his lighter side. It also reafirms the potential of the film medium to thrill and entertain without underestimating it's audience intelligence. It is also kind of funny, that of all the groundbreaking masterworks by Mr. Scorsese it is this more accesible commercial effort that appears to be more in tune with the Academy Awards sensitivity. With eleven Academy Awards nominations, including one for Best Direction, The Aviator may finally be Scorcese’s aria that will allow him to take Oscar home, but this Aviator is no Taxi Driver.
ADDED NOTE: Mr. Scorsese did not win the Oscar for Film or Direction, although Cate Blanchett received the well deserved award for Best Supporting Actress. The film won additional awards for Best Cinematography, Costume Design and Film Editing. Sadly, after the Awards Mr. Scorsese commented in regards to the Academy and his loss that "I get the message". Let's hope that the political games of the Academy Awards do not impact his creative muse, whether he is making another grounbreaking masterpiece or another crowdpleaser like this one.
American writer and director who emerged as one of the brightest and most vital of the generation of filmmakers who came to prominence during the 1970s with his heartfelt, vivid and at times lurid works. After deciding against joining the priesthood, he turned to his other passion - movies - and started with short efforts at film school until Roger Corman hired him to direct Boxcar Bertha.
However, it was New York drama Mean Streets that really made Scorsese's name as a talent to watch, and his succeeding films, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (which won Ellen Burstyn an Oscar and is the only Scorsese movie to be made into a sitcom) and the cult classic Taxi Driver (starring Robert De Niro, forever associated with the director's work) only confirmed this.
In the nineties, Scorsese began with the searing gangster saga Goodfellas, and continued with the over-the-top remake of Cape Fear before a change of pace with quietly emotional period piece The Age of Innocence. Casino saw a return to gangsters, and Kundun was a visually ravishing story of the Dalai Lama. Bringing Out the Dead returned to New York for a medical tale of redemption, and Gangs of New York was a muddled historical epic.
Still the Best Director Oscar eluded him, but the 2000s gave what many saw as his best chance at winning. Slick Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator didn't make it, but remake of Infernal AffairsThe Departed finally won him the prize. Outlandish thriller Shutter Island then provided him with the biggest hit of his career after which he surprised everyone by making family film Hugo - another huge hit.
This was followed by an even bigger success with extreme broker takedown The Wolf of Wall Street, and a return to his religious origins with the austere, redemption through torture drama Silence. He also directed Michael Jackson's Bad music video.