Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Movie Review: The Aviator (2004)

Tuesday, January 11, 2005
A film by Martin Scorsese

I go into a Martin Scorsese picture hoping to have my expectations blown away. With classic films like "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" Scorsese was still able to exceed expectations and a lesser work such as "Bringing Out the Dead" was far better than expected. There is always the potential for greatness with Scorsese, and I always hope for the best but expect something less. "Gangs of New York" did not deliver. With "The Aviator" critics were once again saying this could be the year for Scorsese, this could be the picture. It's not. "The Aviator" is a biopic focusing on part of the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy filmmaker and aviator, a true American genius with all the success and tragedy that this entails. The movie is good, and the performances better, but "The Aviator" is less than the sum of its parts not greater.

The film opens with a young boy being told by his mother about these diseases that are outside, that there are epidemics raging in town. That young Howard is not safe. Now we push forward to the late 1930's when Howard Hughes is older, but still a young man. He is directing a movie called "Hell's Angels", an incredibly ambitious film about World War I. Personally financed by Hughes, the film ran way over any expected budget and took three years to complete (compare this to the 18 months of Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" which was said to be extremely long and demanding). "The Aviator" shows the rise of Howard Hughes. He is already wealthy from a drill bits business, but he has a grander dream. His movie is a success, he spends his time with famous movie stars including a star of "Hell's Angels" Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and the rise of Howard Hughes continues as he becomes more and more successful in aviation. He designs planes, flies planes and eventually becomes owner of TWA airlines.

Not to stretch the analogy of Howard Hughes the Aviator too thin or make too obvious of a cliche, but perhaps Hughes flew too near the sun and though he kept trying to fly higher, he was to be brought back down to earth. Hughes was a mess of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and full of little nervous tics because of his OCD compulsion about cleanliness. I suppose that the suggestion Scorsese is making here is that his compulsions stem from those childhood moments where his mother admonishes him that the world is not clean, not safe. I question that, but there is no doubt that Hughes suffered from his mania. It kept him from truly living a normal existence, though it got worse as he aged and as success was replaced by failure.

After buying TWA so that he can make a different, new kind of airplane, he gets into the world of airlines. Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) of Pan Am works with Senator Brewster (Alan Alda) to put Pan Am at an advantage compared to the upstart TWA. Hughes fights this and it is perhaps the whole ordeal with Pan Am and the Government which begins the fall of Howard Hughes.

"The Aviator" is a very big, broad movie. It covers a large period of time in the life of Howard Hughes, though not his entire life. It is a long movie, and perhaps a little bit too long. More than halfway through the movie, "The Aviator" begins to feel its length. It feels long and while I'm not sure what could have been trimmed, something could have been.

What helps "The Aviator" to rise above other movies is the performances. Every actor in this movie is quite excellent. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the strongest performances in his career and for the first time he was believable as an older man. I bought him as an adult, and this was one of my biggest concerns. John C Reilly is perpetually solid as Hughes' business man Noah Dietrich. The real heart of the movie, however, is Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn. She seems to give both the movie and Howard Hughes a sense of morality and direction. She is the power driving the film, and perhaps his life. Life after Hepburn began her lifelong romance with Spencer Tracy became the other part of the Decline of Howard Hughes. Blanchett may very well deserve an Oscar Nomination for her work here, but she never gives a bad performance in any film.

This film is an instance of every part being so good, especially the acting, but these parts somehow do not quite come together to make the masterpiece "The Aviator" almost was. Everything is in place, but it doesn't quite connect. Inexplicable, perhaps, and this movie will likely wind up on "Best of" lists and may very well earn an Oscar Nomination, but it doesn't live up to what it almost was. And that is disappointing. The acting is worth the price of admission, but the film itself is only a Grade: B.

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