It’s noteworthy that Martin Scorsese’s screen portrait of Howard Hughes-a brilliant innovator who risked his fortune compulsively-is the least audacious, least adventurous, least electric movie the director has ever made. With the exception of two or three scenes, The Aviator is a boilerplate biopic that virtually any film school grad could have given us.
Leonardo DiCaprio furrows his augmented brow, twitches, tics and, with his blackened, slicked back hair, does a transfixing impersonation of the young Hughes. Scorsese picks up his subject’s story when he was 22 and already a player in the fields of aviation and movie making having inherited millions his father made in the less glamorous fields of oil and machine parts.
Two rather long and only marginally compelling chapters open the film. The first involves the making of the war epic Hell’s Angels. As the director tells it, the silent era indie took three years to produce, cost an unprecedented $4 million (nearly bankrupting the young filmmaker) and had to be completely reshot for sound after its completion due to the arrival of talkies. It’s nice that the chapter closes on a note of apparent triumph: At the premiere, Hughes is given a standing ovation. What might have been nicer still would have been some degree of perspective as to how the picture ultimately sugared out financially and what its place in the history of cinema is generally considered to be.
Given that The Aviator portrays Hughes as a well connected visionary always one step ahead of his competition, it might have been nice also to get some sort of explanation as to why our hero wouldn’t have been hip to the fact that sound was about to make its debut in the movies. It’s not like The Jazz Singer was a top secret government project.
Next Scorsese traces the course of Hughes’ doomed romance with Katharine Hepburn. Cate Blanchette does a decent impression too. They play golf together, put up with Errol (Jude Law Alert!) Flynn’s drunken impudence at the Cocoanut Grove-Flynn picks one of the already germ-wary Hughes’ peas off his dinner plate rendering the meal uneatable-and they fly over Hollywood at night in Howard’s plane together, Hepburn taking the wheel while her date drinks milk straight from the bottle. It’s all rendered with loving care to period detail and yet a persistent so-whatness pervades.
Later Hughes boldly envisions leaps in plane design, buys a controlling interest in TWA and basically invents the modern transcontinental air travel industry and yet I’m not sure the viewer is allowed an opportunity to be properly impressed. Faster than colossal accomplishments such as these can be processed, Scorsese shifts focus again and again away from his subject’s entrepreneurial breakthroughs to his emotional and psychological breakdowns. The picture’s portrait leaves off well before Hughes’ descent into major league Vegas-based madness and one comes away suspecting the director wanted to get all the mileage he could out of its intimations.
Scenes revolving around his exploits as a womanizer aren’t particularly convincing. DiCaprio’s Hughes comes off as a somewhat pervy playboy. The only relationship in the film that really fires on all cylinders, in my opinion, is that between Hughes and his rival, Juan Trippe, the head of Pan American. Alec Baldwin gives one of his juiciest performances in years in the role of the genial schemer. There’s a wonderful scene in which DiCaprio and Baldwin talk business behind opposite sides of a locked door. On one side, a bemused Trippe is dressed in pinstripes and carries a briefcase. On the other, Hughes is bearded, naked and desperately struggling to hold it together.
For my money, the highpoint of The Aviator isn’t any of its colorful test flight catastrophes-one of which results in Hughes being burned nearly to death. It’s the climactic chapter set in 1947 in which he faces off with a corrupt senator (Alan Alda), a flunky in Trippe’s back pocket, whose committee holds public hearings designed to ruin his reputation and pave the way for Pan American’s dominance of the skies.
Scorsese’s latest coasts along on autopilot for most of its nearly three hours but soars in these final moments. DiCaprio does a masterful job of suggesting the monumental act of will required for Hughes to appear in public at that point in his life and the bristling counterattack his testimony provides ranks among the most dramatic bits of dialogue put on celluloid in the past year.
A diverting but only intermittently memorable look at the early years of a famously troubled titan, The Aviator is a movie meant to be as big as its larger than life subject. To achieve that would have required an approach heavier on psychology and far, far lighter on showy period replication. The fact is the depth of Scorsese’s latest never quite justifies its length.