Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Review: "The Aviator" (2004)

Howard Hughes was not a well man. He was the perfect embodiment of Obsessive Compulsive disorder before it became a household term. His public life came to be scrutinized and he himself was seen as a freak which, considering his later years, is a cruel yet accurate epithet. This is all another way of saying that he is a ripe candidate for an epic film biography of his life, and the only surprising element of all this is that it took Hollywood so long to put one together.

"The Aviator" skips the traditional credits and goes straight to a scene from Hughes' childhood. In it, we learn of a Cholera scare he survived and how his mother protected him. Suddenly, we are taken to an airfield in the middle of the desert some years later where Hughes has just purchased the largest private air force in the world. It's partially in service of his directorial debut, "Hell's Angels", which took three years to make and was looked upon as an expensive boondoggle, much in the same way "Titanic" was in 1997. And also like that film, it became a blockbuster, and we are launched into Hughes' careers in business, film and most of all aviation, for all the good times and bad.

There's one absence that struck me early on in this film, and that was the lack of detail concerning Hughes's childhood. Rare is the docudrama that doesn't indulge in numerous scenes of a character's formative years in order to map out their psyche (Witness "Ray", who mayhap took one too many trips to that flashback well). With "The Aviator", we have a brief and subtle scene that alludes to Hughes' later phobias of germs, and that's it. This is all well and good concerning his eccentricities, but what of his passions? In case you didn't get it from the title, Hughes's true love was flying. And as we begin our viewing of his lifelong passion on that airfield, we are left wondering how he came to this adoration of flight. It's a notable and unusual omission.

But just as we are left wondering where his interest in flying started, we are not at all left wondering ourselves what there is to like about it. When he finally gets the number of cameras he needs for a dogfight sequence, we follow him in an open-air cockpit as he films planes buzzing in all directions all around him. It's the kind of chaos that seems lifted from a Warner Brothers cartoon, and would be a thrilling sequence to see on an IMAX screen. Equally as chaotic, but in a more frightening way, is the re-creation of his horrible crash in 1946. We are once again in the cockpit with Hughes as he plows through homes and fire erupts all around him. The film should be seen for these sequences alone in how well they are done.

Martin Scorsese must have had a ball filming this. Nevermind the thrills he got from doing a story about classic Hollywood after growing up with films of this era, but he also has some fun tweaking his film in ways that only movie buffs like him would recognize. As the film progresses, the colors and lighting of the film change in strange ways that are never explained. In particular is a golf game that Hughes and Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) engage in where all the grass appears to be a very bluish teal color. According to IMDb trivia, Scorsese shot certain scenes in the way color film was shot during the particular period of that scene, thus the miscoloration. Again, I doubt anybody who isn't a film buff would "get" this (Hell, even I didn't get it), but it's an interesting addition, nonetheless, and shows his passion for the material.

Having equally as much fun as Scorsese is DiCaprio, who goes through some interesting physical transformations as Hughes. DiCaprio is very much in the vein of method actors such as Scorsese regular Robert DeNiro. I was reminded of Jake LaMotta punching the walls in his jail cell in "Raging Bull" during the scenes of DiCaprio living in his screening room and mumbling to himself. For all the indulgences both DiCaprio and Scorsese take in these scenes, I found more memorable the segment that immediately followed where Hughes, shaven and cleaned up, takes on Senator Brewster (Alan Alda) at a government hearing. I have seen the original footage of Hughes during these exchanges, and DiCaprio nails the way Hughes takes over the proceedings by simple power of will and charisma and then puts the poor Senator in his place.

"The Aviator" also got a lot of attention for its supporting roles and it's easy to see why. Blanchett won an Oscar for her portrayal of Hepburn and her performance is quite deserving. She wisely doesn't do a full-on impression, instead doing a slight vocal lilt and providing the intelligent and confident manner that Hepburn was famous for on screen and off. Hepburn played a significant role in Hughes's life, and he returned the favor by protecting her once from the tabloids. Both of the self described misfits have a bond with each other that continues even after their breakup, and it lends another bittersweet taste to Hughes's story.

Of the briefer star appearances, there are a few notables. Gwen Steffani does indeed make a radiant Jean Harlow, but she does little besides stand and smile. Jude Law is very well cast as Errol Flynn, but is also given little to do. He shows up for a night club scene and then pops up only once more much later in a Hospital waiting room. Considering how little time and effort is invested in the character, you have to wonder why they bothered, except for the possibility that they just wanted to show off Jude Law. Finally, Willem Defoe makes a one scene cameo as a sleazy reporter, but its fair to say that he makes more of an impact than Steffani and Law combined.

I was rooting for Scorsese at the Oscars before I had even seen his film. Now that I have seen both this and "Million Dollar Baby", I can see why the later won. "Baby" just seems so much more together and complete, whereas "Aviator, as impressive as it is, fells like it's missing some vital pieces of the puzzle. I suppose such a description is all the more appropriate for a film about a man whose personality we are missing pieces of to this day.

Eight out of Ten

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