A review of “The Aviator” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for sexual innuendo, language and violence

Run Time: 2 hours, 49 minutes

 

 

Howard Hughes’ vibrant life makes for a worthy biopic that Martin Scorsese crafts in glamorous style.

Howard Hughes’ idiosyncratic existence is a notorious chapter in the history of both aviation and high society.  From a sickly child in the oil fields of Texas to the glamorous figurehead of Hollywood and beyond, Hughes was an enigma and a renaissance man.

Early 1920s. A young, affluent Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes his love of cantilevered monoplanes and ungainly cargo-carrying H-4 Hercules’ and makes it personal, determined to break existing air-speed records and land in the record books as the fastest man on the planet. 

From that not-so-humble start Hughes turns his introspective eye to film, focusing primarily on the bloated “Hell’s Angels”, a big-budget WWI box-office bomb that requires several years and several million dollars to complete.

Along the way the swells sit up and take notice, from exasperated movie tycoons and contentious airline CEOs (excellent Alec Baldwin as Pan Am Chairman Juan Trippe) to equally powerfully Hollywood starlets who can’t resists Hughes’ indifferent charm.

One of the most famous to fall for Hughes’ casual line is Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), whose straightforward manner and no-nonsense affections appeal to the romantically befuddled Hughes.

As Hughes’ wealth and fame gain ground, so do debilitating indications of mental illness.  A deathly fear of germs, severe agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder; all in his head but rigorous roadblocks to Hughes’ grand ambition to own a piece of the skies and make his mark on aviation once and for all.

Scorsese appears to have gained back some behind-the-camera mastery of his older works.  Aviator is all spit and polish with melodrama to spare. Though it could do with a trimmer running time and smoother transitions between the incongruous businesses of industry, romance, and aeronautics.

Plot and production is a glossy valentine to the glory days of Hollywood; each moment an inescapable ode to sensational tabloid fodder.  The narrative never loses sight of the fact that its hero is pathologically unstable, knowledge that casts insidious suspicion over the most innocent of moments.

DiCaprio is solid as Hughes, even when he descends into alarmingly bizarre displays of OCD. Blanchett should expect an Oscar nom for infusing Hepburn with gawky grace and headlining the film’s memorable let’s-meet-the-parents scene at her family’s upscale Connecticut estate.

The final act is exceptionally tedious, focusing on lengthy Senate hearings that drag the action to a lull and prevent this intriguing work from breaking out as the masterpiece it could have been.