The Aviator

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Howard Hughes, one of America’s wealthiest men, is also a successful film producer with a string of Hollywood starlets on his arm and a gifted aeroplane designer to boot. Hughes’ determination to succeed delivers great rewards but also a number of near-death scrapes, while his obsessive nature weighs increasingly heavily on his mental equilibrium.

The received wisdom in Hollywood is that Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is crazy. His daring WWI feature Hell’s Angels has been in production for years and it’s still nowhere near finished, since he’s trying to borrow more cameras than the two dozen he already has; and he’s wasting his inherited fortune waiting for a confused Professor Fitz (Ian Holm) to get him the clouds he needs to create the right sense of speed. Even when he has most of the picture in the can, he decides to re-shoot much of it because talkies have arrived.

Yet the movie’s a hit, and for all his socially awkwardness he can still attend the premiere with Jean Harlow on his arm, though he pursues a more substantial relationship with feisty actress Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). In any case, movies aren’t even Hughes’ passion: he’s properly obsessed with designing fast planes – though he’ll equally find the time to design a streamlined bra for Jane Russell’s knockout appearance in The Outlaw – and while designing a plane for TWA he decides he may as well buy the airline, bringing him into opposition with Pan Am’s Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin).

Hughes also starts work on the Hercules, an enormous plane for the US Air Force which the press dub the ‘Spruce Goose’ due to its wooden construction. All this time, Hughes struggles with a compulsion to clean his hands and often gets stuck in loops of speech, a condition that escalates until he is a long-nailed, unshaven recluse. Hepburn, meanwhile, has fallen into the arms of Spencer Tracy, so it’s left to Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) to bring Howard out of the sanctuary of his screening room; and not a moment too soon, because Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) is in Trippe’s pocket, threatening to destroy TWA with a Civil Aviation Bill and, at a Congressional Hearing into war profiteering, both Hughes’ reputation and fortune.

If I told you that the paragraphs above are essentially just a speed run at explaining the plot of The Aviator, you’ll get an idea of the scale of Scorsese’s film. I’ve not even mentioned many of Hughes’ aviation exploits which are given an airing, such as flying around the world in record time or setting speed records, or suffering horrific injuries when his XF-11 plane crashed in Beverly Hills – he’s a keen golfer too. And neither have I mentioned decent actors who do well in fairly substantial roles, such as John C. Reilly as exasperated moneyman Noah Dietrich and Matt Ross as chief engineer Glenn Odekirk. Given the breadth and complexity of Hughes’ life, Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan do very well to pick a clear path through it, even if they do shift things around a little for dramatic effect.

Some of the methods used to explain what’s happening are a bit clunky – there’s plenty of suspiciously helpful newsreel commentary, and late on Trippe makes a speech which clumsily predicts the future – but as someone who knew nothing about Hughes other than what I gleaned from Rocketeer, the film does a good job of explaining what happened when. Furthermore, while DiCaprio may not closely resemble Hughes, he does a pretty good job of representing his many moods and phases of health and is very much at ease in the lead, which is just as well since he’s in nearly every scene.

Sadly, whilst its story is clear enough, and Scorsese and Logan make a reasonable guess at the childhood origins of his obsessive behaviour, The Aviator doesn’t mesh the facets of Hughes’ life – the filmmaker, the aeronautical pioneer, the businessman, the womaniser and (for want of a better word) the madman – into a dramatically coherent whole. There’s not enough of a through-line between the self-assured, all-powerful magnate and the disturbed recluse who locks himself away for months, so the film raises more questions than answers. How come a little attention from Ava is enough to put Howard’s mind back on the right track, for a few months at least? And what sets him off again? The drama falls down on other levels, too – the action of the Senate Hearing isn’t the most rousing of climaxes, and whilst the flight of the massive Hercules is an obvious metaphor for Hughes’ soaring and often folly-filled ambition, it takes big liberties with the truth.

Additionally, The Aviator’s concentration on Hughes comes at the expense of depth in other roles, with many big names given the briefest of character sketches. Jude Law has a redundant cameo as a feisty Errol Flynn, while Beckinsale delivers her lines without ever inhabiting the role of Ava Gardner (apparently Beckinsale was called in at short notice, which explains a lot). Even the ready controversy of Hughes’ association with 15-year-old actress Faith Domergue (played by Kelli Garner) is barely explored (annoyingly, her big scene features some hopeless continuity lapses, not least the spoon which recklessly dashes in and out of her ice-cream).

Happily, there’s a brilliant exception in Cate Blanchett’s impeccable portrayal of Katharine Hepburn; whenever ‘Hepburn’ is on screen, whether alone with Howard, visiting the eccentric family home or being the fabulous movie star, The Aviator crackles with quality and wit. Blanchett’s interpretation of Hepburn is fantastic, almost to the extent that you’d like to be watching her biopic instead. Still, the film has bigger fish to fry and both Baldwin and Alda do well as Trippe and Brewster, even if their machinations feel a bit like corruption by numbers.

A film as ambitious as The Aviator can provide plenty of ammunition when it doesn’t all come together, for the reasons above and a few technical ones that I haven’t yet mentioned – Scorsese is understandably more at home marshalling the movie-based action than the high-flying stuff, some of which looks distractingly artificial; and even though the film mostly looks terrific, the use of digital tricks to mimic the colour film stock of the time (eg. the turquoise golf course) isn’t entirely satisfactory, since it appears to exist for no reason other than as a cinematic in-joke. All that said, I’d much rather watch a movie that shoots for the moon and fails than one with nothing much to say, and The Aviator is an educational, fascinating movie which – for all its faults – also carries itself off with some style and at least one outstanding performance.

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