Wednesday 18 June 2014

Movie Review: The Aviator (2004)

The biography of Howard Hughes as he carves his legend in the worlds of film, flight, and business, The Aviator is the grand story of one rich but flawed man's visionary approach to life. Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is inspired, and Martin Scorsese directs with controlled audacity.

After a brief introductory glimpse of Hughes as a young boy being bathed by his mother as she emphasizes disease phobias, the film starts in 1927 with Hughes (DiCaprio) in his early twenties having inherited his family's immense fortune and control of the Houston-based Hughes Tool Company. But Hughes is not interested in running a tool company, and has settled in California to produce and direct the movie Hell's Angels about aviators in the Great War. Hughes hires Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) as his right hand man, and spares no cost to create an epic and ultimately successful film outside the studio system. Hughes also meets and starts a relationship with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett).

Hughes translates his love of aviation into an aircraft manufacturing business and pours his resources to push innovations that make planes lighter and faster. He puts himself at risk by insisting on flying prototypes and attempting to set speed records, and is awarded contracts by the US Air Force and fledgling civilian company TWA. But Hughes is also suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and gradually his behaviour becomes more erratic. He breaks up with Hepburn and soon befriends another star in Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). With the eruption of World War Two Hughes becomes a major contractor to the defence industry, and starts to develop the Hercules, a gigantic "flying boat" military transport airplane, an ambitious project that consumes inordinate time and resources.

After the war he takes control of TWA and unveils plans to start providing civilian flights across the Atlantic, which puts him in direct competition with Pan American Airways and its powerful chairman Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). Trippe is well connected politically and calls on his friend Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) to block TWA and to eventually start an intimidation campaign against Hughes. With his mental state worsening, Hughes faces the ultimate political battle to save his business and his legacy.

Despite a length of 170 minutes, The Aviator is a joy to watch and an unconditionally engrossing experience. Martin Scorsese directs John Logan's script with an eye firmly on the man at the centre of the legend, and creates a portrait of a flawed genius carving his own path, creating his own rules, and reshaping history. The Aviator portrays Hughes as a true one of a kind, a headstrong tycoon innovator possessing the courage of his convictions, always willing to create and fund a new reality whenever useless constraints get in the way of his achievements.

But he is also sick and undiagnosed, and DiCaprio is at his best as Hughes starts to lose the grip on his mind and his ability to practically function. Hughes' fear of germs consumes his life, and his increasingly damaged mind starts to freeze into endless sentence loops, behaviour that compromises Hughes' ability to lead and inspire. There is a thin line between genius and debilitation, and Hughes often crosses into the dark territory of an outstanding intellect misfiring badly. DiCaprio takes Hughes to the highest peaks of achievement and the lowest depths of self-imposed isolation in a driven performance deservedly nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award.

The Aviator is filled with moments that count as supreme brilliance, extreme folly and plain obsession all at once. Hughes micromanages Hell's Angels, hiring a meteorologist to predict the cloud formations that Hughes demands as the perfect backdrop to the aerial combat scenes. He then shoots endless reels and oversees a mammoth editing process, but the end result is a masterpiece. Hughes' fight with Trippe and Pan American is Quixotic, one man tilting at the windmills of an establishment backed by impressive political forces. And Hughes' tenacity in the face of all the technical impossibilities of the Hercules sums up his ever-strengthening resolve in the face of a seemingly never ending list of challenges. The Aviator is a study of the science of making the impossible possible, granted through a man with the resources to buy his way towards new solutions.

Scorsese eschews CGA and uses scale models to recreate the world of Hughes' aircrafts, from World War One fighters to military spy planes and finally the mammoth Spruce Goose, as the Hercules became known. The use of models gives the film a rich, old fashioned texture, and avoids the distraction created by the inevitable transition between real and digital screen images.

The rich supporting cast is full of first class talent, and Cate Blanchett won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her turn as Katharine Hepburn. Blanchett initially plays Hepburn as Hughes' female equivalent, an independent woman changing the rules of her industry, but a fateful trip to her family home in New England is telling: Hughes does nothing to try and fit in, and instead exposes the hypocrisy of rich people touting socialism as a viable political solution. Hepburn, for all her public independence, blends in with her family. Their relationship is never the same again.

In one of her best career roles, Kate Beckinsale also does an excellent job as Ava Gardner, as strong as Hepburn in dealing with her man but with fewer outward revolutionary airs. Gardner plays a crucial role in bringing Hughes back to his feet when he most needs a boost. Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda create a formidable duo in opposition to Hughes, the embodiment of industrial / political entangled sleaze corrupting the system. Jude Law and Willem Dafoe have small but sharp single scene roles, Law as Errol Flynn and Dafoe as a journalist possessing compromising photos of Hepburn with her new lover Spencer Tracy.

A magical union between talented filmmakers and an outstanding subject, The Aviator simply soars.

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