Thursday, December 30, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Aviator

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, Intense Scenes Of A Test Flight Gone Bad, Some Nudity (Male), Some Sexual Content

Preconceived Notions: Big buzz. People are saying it's DiCaprio's best picture yet. And I'm a sucker for anything by Martin Scorsese
The Bottom Line: A highly watchable biography, even if it leaves some mysteries mysterious.

The Aviator is the doubly tragic and triumphant story of eccentric mogul Howard Hughes, an innovative maverick who looked for new ways to conquer the air and make movies outside Hollywood's studio system. Before his life was over, he would also have his hands in electronics and casinos. And yet this same man who commanded an empire fell victim to obscessive-compusive disorder and an irrational fear of germs. He could have all the women he wanted, but couldn't find a way to keep them short of paranoid surveillance. I kept expecting Hughes to be carted off to a mental institution, and I believe only his status and money kept him out of there.

DiCaprio carries the huge burden of the Hughes role without straining, right down to his looks. He is straightforward and commanding, yet consumed by his fears. The film opens with a scene from his childhood which will set the stage for his madness. Director Martin Scorsese then flashes forward to Hughes' bloated (for that time) war picture Hell's Angels, a film that almost never got to theaters because of Howard's insistance on perfection -- right down to keeping a huge private air force and dozens of cameras on paid standby until he can get a day with clouds in the sky.

Dabbling in movies seems so odd for a man whose heart is in airplanes, and he's constantly breaking records while looking for the next breakthrough, including the Hercules (aka the Spruce Goose), and a fighter plane that nearly kills him while flying it. The aircraft goes down in Los Angeles in a spectacular crash that's one of the most realistic ever filmed, even though it's CGI.

Hughes' lovelife doesn't stay up either. We see him fling with Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett, in a dead-on match for the greatest leading lady of all time) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). But between his fame, his flirting, and his phobias, true love is elusive and damn near impossible. I theorize it has as much to do with Hughes' need for control as his OCD.

The picture builds to a climax involving Hughes' fight to become a player in international air travel as owner of TWA. The market is held by rival Pan Am, led by Juan Trippe (Baldwin) and in the pocket of Sen. Owen Brewster (Alda, in what could be a comeback role for him). The air war nearly destroys Hughes, both mentally and financially.

The Aviator is by no means a complete biography, but rather a highlight reel of a man at his peak, a la Ray. One can make a lot of comparisons between this film and Scorsese's Raging Bull, both of which featured men whose public successes were tarnished by their psychological shortcomings. The Aviator lacks the 1980 film's grainy art-house grit, but it still leaves it to us to figure out what kind of man Hughes was, showing rather than telling. That creates several mysterious moments, ones that you talk about after the film and think about for days afterward.

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