Just before World War I, the young Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) inherits a fortune in the shape of his father's drill bit company. He begins to use up rather a lot of that fortune on a war movie set in the air, Hell's Angels, doing his own aerial stunts and starting to design his own planes. Working outside the studios, Hughes is regarded as a reckless outsider, especially when he decides to reshoot the film with sound - his first but not last visionary decision. The film's success brings him celebrity status and the company of stars like Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and later Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). His affairs with both end in separation - but both women retain an affection for him. Not so Pan Am boss Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). As Hughes reaches further and further into the future with his aviation plans and his revolutionary designs, Trippe and his Senate lap dog, Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) force a Senate Committee hearing designed to stop Hughes' TWA from competing on major international routes. But Hughes, despite his unstable mental condition, refuses to buckle.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The chances of another Howard Hughes coming along in these over-regulated and political constricted times is as remote as pigs flying - unless Hughes had the pigs under contract. The man's towering achievements and deep neuroses make for a fascinating, fantastic and far reaching film. If it weren't based on a real person, no-one would dare write such a character for fear of being locked up. The writer, not the character.
But of course even with the writing talents of John Logan and filmmaking passion of Martin Scorsese, we don't understand Howard Hughes. Who could. But we understand about Howard Hughes, and the difference is that we know why he is beyond understanding on the sort of level we are used to in cinematic heroes.
The film is the shortest 170 minute film I've ever seen. The screenplay, the editing and the sheer determination of the filmmakers in capturing this exceptional man on the screen make it a wonderfully gripping experience. It excels in every department, from design and FX to Howard Shore's great score.
And then there are the performances: Leonardo DiCaprio manages to bridge the apparently unbridgeable gaps from Hughes' inspired aviator to insipid neurotic, wringing his soaped hands in anguish at the bathroom basin in a morbid fear of germs. The first scene shows us a naked young Howard being washed down by his mother as he stands in a wash basin, murmuring warnings about disease. The scene suggests that his phobia was born under his mother's care, presumably with repetitions of that scene. I prefer to think that he was slightly unbalanced and this sort of motherly protectiveness simply gave his state of mind some fuel.
But the performance cuts through any reservations when we see him in contrary circumstances, one moment the brilliant engineer and the next the hopeless recluse shut in his chaotic private office, ordering milk and food - in paper bags held at 45 degrees so he wouldn't contaminate his hand touching the bag.
The story soars into flight from the start, from when he was the young billionaire heir, to the pioneer aviator and maverick filmmaker, at a time when Hollywood was glowing in its golden haze, the mid 20s to the late 40s. DiCaprio draws us in despite the character's dark complexity and our resistance to his less than charming moments. But we are mentally seduced by the man's evident intelligence and sincerity. DiCaprio has it all to show.
Around him, other sensational performances prop up the film's proud ambitions. Cate Blanchett is mesmerising as Katharine Hepburn (disconcertingly called Kate for much of the film), so effortlessly capturing the young Kate yet never turning the performance into an impression or impersonation. It's all genuine, solid gold characterisation.
John C. Reilly as his business manager, Noah, has the hardest support role, playing a man who is simply there. He does it superbly, while Alan Alda gets to play against type as the unscrupulous Senator Owen Brewster, in the pay of Hughes' rival, Pan Am chief Juan Trippe, played with great depth by Alec Baldwin. Alda lets the words and the camera do the work in an understated yet devastating portrayal of a greedy, power hungry, hypocritical and self serving politician.
All the supports, including one scene cameos like Jude Law's Errol Flynn, are superb, and the mood of the film tangibly creates the period without fussy overstatements. Howard Hughes, paraphrased on screen like this, is not a person with whom we can fall in love, but we certainly empathise with him. With Gangs of New York, DiCaprio and Scorsese came close to making a masterpiece; with The Aviator, they might just have got there.
Review by Louise Keller:
Howard Hughes was a brilliant eccentric, driven by his dreams and empowered by his own conviction. His money may have been inherited from his father's business, but his uncompromising, fearless passion was his own, daring to take risks on a massive scale. He risked his fortune, his reputation and his life as he pushed the boundaries of aviation. Aviation was his mistress and obsession, and Hughes never tired of playing the pioneer, both in the cut-throat corporate world and flying solo high above the clouds in one of his planes, when nothing could stop his exhilaration.
Martin Scorsese's dazzling bio-pic The Aviator concentrates on Hughes' achievements, from the 20s to the 40s, when he was a ground-breaking filmmaker and pioneer of the sky. Scorsese, like Hughes, is a perfectionist, and brings an unbridled sense of reckless adventure to the project, taking us into this unique, rather unreal world, where wealth and celebrity are nothing but a layer of clothing. As a novice filmmaker, making WWI epic Hell's Angels, Hughes broke every Hollywood rule about overspending, yet reaped the rewards, becoming an instant celebrity, mingling with the bold and the beautiful. He wanted to build planes that were bigger and faster, and had no compunction about making the necessary decisions to make his dream come true. His reputation as a ladies man was as rich as his bank balance, and his relationships with Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner were nothing short of fascinating.
In an intense and perfectly judged performance, Leonardo DiCaprio is magnificent as The Aviator, displaying every complexity of the carefree adventurer whose exterior hides a vulnerable boy inside the man, terrified of going mad. DiCaprio is as naked emotionally as the scenes when a naked Hughes, suffering from severe, obsessive compulsive paranoia, locks himself in his hotel room for weeks. He refuses to see anyone, and even meetings with Alec Baldwin's tough Pan Am chief Juan Trippe are held through a locked door.
Extraordinary is the word to describe Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Kate Hepburn, satisfying our expectation of the Hepburn-esque mannerisms but without becoming a caricature. Blanchett embodies Hepburn's free-spirited and no-nonsense persona, allowing us to understand the intangible connection between her and Hughes. As Hepburn notes, they both have acute angles and eccentricities, and the scene in which she tells him she is leaving him for Spencer Tracey, is unforgettable. Blanchett brings great vitality to the role, and makes Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner simply look like a cardboard cut-out.
With its soaring score from Howard Shore and splendid production design, the film holds strongly for its 170 minute duration, and its engines never splutter. Fuel injections come from considerable contributions from Alan Alda as Senator Owen Brewster, the powerful schemer who unsuccessfully tries to discredit Hughes publicly, Baldwin's shrewd Juan Trippe, and the ever-solid John C. Reilly, who plays Hughes' financial advisor and friend who protects him from himself. The dizzy Hollywood scene is never better portrayed than at the lavish dinner when Jude Law's outrageous Errol Flynn displays his lack of finesse.
We join Howard Hughes in the cockpit as he gets a rush on life, and follow him through his torment in seclusion. Hughes always wanted big ideas to be left to him. The Aviator is a story about the man, his ideas and ideals. Thank you Martin Scorsese for sharing it with us.
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AVIATOR, THE (M)
CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Gwen Stafeani, Jude Law, Edward Herrmann, Willem Dafoe
PRODUCER: Sandy Climan, Charles Evans jr, Graham King, Michael Mann
DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese
SCRIPT: John Logan
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robert Richardson
EDITOR: Thelma Schoonmaker
MUSIC: Howard Shore
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Dante Ferretti
RUNNING TIME: 170 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 10, 2005