Martin Scorsese directs Leonardo DiCaprio in this biopic of Howard Hughes, the billionaire aviator, filmmaker, and playboy whose considerable ambition was tragically counterbalanced by his mental illness. The Aviator opens with Hughes’ mammoth, three-year-long production of the aerial battle movie Hell’s Angels and his budding romance with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). He makes considerable advances in the field of aviation and challenges the movie sensors by pushing the limits with sex and violence. But as his obsessive compulsive disorder and paranoia spiral out of control, he finds himself in his most public battle yet — a fight with a slimy senator (Alan Alda) who’s trying to strongarm him out of the nascent international air travel business.
The Aviator intrigues on multiple levels for me — a fun re-enactment of Hollywood history combined with exciting highlights in aviation accomplishment, all focused through Hughes’ very specific point of view. His ambitions inspire, his eccentricity provides comic relief, and his attachment to women gives us hope that he can be rescued from his own brain. The film is ultimately a tragedy, as we watch Hughes’ laser-focused attention turn from airplane engineering to germaphobia. DiCaprio captures all the facets of this exceptional character. He takes us to the highest heights, launching the historic Spruce Goose and turning a senate hearing on its head, to the lowest lows, locked naked in his private screening room, peeing in empty milk bottles.
Blanchett is exceptional as Katharine Hepburn. It’s one of the only times I’ve ever seen an actor successfully act through a totally convincing impersonation. As a character in John Logan’s screenplay, she’s also vital in humanizing Hughes. We come to care for him because she does. Alan Alda is also remarkable as the adversarial senator. He and DiCaprio conjure some compelling verbal sparring matches. The supporting cast is full of other great actors, including John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale (as Ava Gardner), Alec Baldwin, Frances Conroy, Brent Spiner, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law (as Errol Flynn), and Adam Scott. Ian Holm is beautifully understated as a beleaguered professor Hughes forces into all sorts of awkward situations, none as memorable as when he’s asked to compare the breasts of Hollywood starlets before the motion picture censor board.
Scorsese balances the big moments with the intimate ones and you never feel the movie’s nearly-three-hour runtime. The cinematography, wardrobe, production design, and music (by Howard Shore) all add shine to a film that, even in its darkest moments, exudes beauty. For me, The Aviator fires on all cylinders and achieves true lift-off.
Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), Costume Design, Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Alan Alda), Director, Original Screenplay (John Logan), Sound Mixing