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January 17, 2005
Movie Review: The Aviator

The First Mate and I took my sister to see the new Martin Scorsese film, The Aviator, which wangled a couple of Golden Globes last night. (Actually, in the interest of full disclosure, my sister took us.) The long-anticipated film looks at the life of Howard Hughes, the aviation pioneer and noted eccentric whose life cast a long shadow in the movie, aviation, defense, and financial industries. While I have a lot of admiration for the attempt, I think The Aviator is fundamentally flawed, if still entertaining.

First, the film only looks at a 20-year period of Hughes' life, from 1927 when he began work on Hell's Angels to 1947, when he flew the Spruce Goose across the water in Los Angeles. He never even mentions RKO, the studio owned by Hughes from 1948 to 1955. That narrow focus disappointed me, as it shortchanged the impact that Hughes had on postwar America. I understand that a film has limited scope, unless you want a Lord of the Rings type of epic, and it's doubtful that anyone would sit still for a four-hour biopic. However, Scorsese dawdled endlessly on the Hell's Angels sequences while obviously admiring the excesses of Hughes himself on producing the film. That time could have gone towards exploring Hughes as an older man in the 1950s and 1960s, including his final descent into his obsessive-compulsive disorder in Las Vegas.

A good part of the film is dedicated to the relationship between Hughes and Katherine Hepburn, one which surprised me; none of us had been aware that they had ever had a personal relationship. The movie takes its time with Hepburn, excellently played by Cate Blanchett, but then skids past one with Ava Gardner, even though she plays a more critical part in the movie. Hughes was linked to dozens of high-profile stars as well as obscure starlets, but we only really see those two plus one starlet who goes crazy for Hughes.

Mostly, I was bothered by the overwhelming focus on Hughes' obsessive-compulsive disorder rather than the accomplishments in his life. Hints appear in almost every scene, and at one point I wanted to say, "I GET IT! HE HAS OCD!" It's the kind of thing that actors salivate to portray, and Leonardo DiCaprio does an excellent job doing so. However, OCD wasn't the be-all and end-all of Howard Hughes, and Scorsese misses the forest for the trees.

However, the film does grab attention for almost the entire run time, and some sequences are truly gripping. Hughes almost died testing one of his designs, and Scorsese shows the crash in amazing detail, a sequence that may be one of the best of its kind. The Senate hearings that a smirking Alan Alda holds also has its own power, with momentum shifting back and forth until Hughes finally breaks the committee with his audacious and forthright testimony.

The performances of the cast are uniformly excellent. As always, I didn't recognize Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner (I didn't recognize her in Van Helsing, either); she seems to melt into her roles. It's good to see Alan Alda in something meaningful, rather than Michael Moore's Canadian Bacon, and he delivers a natural performance as a Maine senator in the pocket of Pan Am's CEO. As I said earlier, DiCaprio and Blanchett do a terrific job. I even liked Alec Baldwin as Pan Am chief Juan Trippe, which says something indeed. Scorsese directs with his usual style and flair, although if I saw one more shot taking the audience into the oncoming nose of an aircraft, I would have started cheering for another crash.

I think The Aviator is a flawed but entertaining film that takes few chances. Instead of limiting its scope, Scorsese should have emulated his subject a bit more and taken a more ambitious look at Hughes' entire life, not just his OCD and Hollywood relationships. I'd recommend it for the sheer spectacle and the performances. It's rated PG-13 for language and the extremely realistic crash sequence, as well as the subject matter and several shots of DiCaprio's exposed rear.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 17, 2005 5:44 PM

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» Captain's Quarters on the Aviator: OCD is Weird from Moderately Angry
Ed Morrisey on The Aviator: . . . Translation: Mental illness is icky, and I wish Scorcese would have glossed over this aspect of Hughes' life. Ed, unfortunately for the mentally ill, "hints" of their mental illness appear in almost all of the "scenes... [Read More]

Tracked on January 17, 2005 9:46 PM

» Movies from Commonwealth Conservative
Yesterday, I mentioned that my wife and I had seen "The Life Aquatic." Today, I see that Captain Ed has a review of another movie I hope to see soon: "The Aviator." His review is mixed. [Read More]

Tracked on January 17, 2005 10:34 PM

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