With all the hype and Oscar talk you'd think "The Aviator" was a great movie. It's not. Certainly Scorsese's best remembered work like "Goodfellas", "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" are in a league above his work here, and if this is the number one choice of many a critics list this year then more than anything else it goes to show that this has been a pretty run of the mill year in cinema.
Well, now that the hype has been shattered it is safe to say though that "The Aviator" is the director's best work in over a decade and whilst it doesn't deserve a Number One placement it certainly is easily one of the year's five best movies. Together with DiCaprio delivering a career best role, the pair have come up with a biographical pic that's larger than life about a man that was just that and more. The life of the billionaire industrialist is too big to contain so a smart decision was made it seems to concentrate on a select portion rather than haphazardly covering it all (take note Oliver Stone). Starting with the filming of "Hell's Angels" and capping off with the flight of the Spruce Goose, Scorsese's picture effectively encapsulates a lot of what we know about Hughes (his love affairs, work ethic, celebrity friends) whilst still delving very slightly into his formative early years and the insanity and reclusiveness that dominated his later life. The result is a three-hour opus that beautifully conveys the period and whilst a little on the chilly side, does deliver a small bit of insight into the mind and madness of Hughes even if it feels as though we're just sitting on the sidelines. Helping it along is the superb cinematography, beautiful costumes, Howard Shore's strong if not remarkable score and some totally convincing digital effects. On a technical level it's one of the most superbly made biopics ever. The performances are stunning with DiCaprio turning in a solid and convincing portrayal of a restless young man pursuing his dream despite everything around him (including his own mind) struggling and ultimately failing to keep pace. Matching him perfectly is Blanchett whose work as the late great Katherine Hepburn in her heyday is 'simply marrrvelllous'. The scenes of those two together are warm and thoroughly engaging and help the early half of the picture move along with great ease. Smaller roles from Alec Baldwin as the head of Pan Am, Alan Alda as a US Senator out to bury Hughes, John C. Reilly as his right-hand man and Kate Beckinsale as the cool beauty Ava Gardner are all solidly handled by their respective thespians.
And yet... something is a wee bit off. At nearly three hours it is a long movie to be sure and whilst the giddy heyday of the first half of the film simply flies by, the second half ain't so cheery or digestible. Going in I was quite worried that Scorsese wouldn't touch upon Hughes slowly disintegrating psyche or legendary fear of germs. Coming out I felt disappointed he spent so MUCH time covering it.
After a truly spectacular crash scene set in Beverly Hills, much of the film's last hour (with the exception of the finale) is devoted to Hughes madness and his famous stint of locking himself in a screening room naked and pissing into milk bottles. The director almost painfully recreates these scenes which may be accurate to detail, but the whole affair lacks the drive and energy that propels much of the first part of the film (a lot of that is due to Blanchett not being around). Scorsese commendably is quite objective about his subject - displaying the man's faults and strengths with equal measure and letting us the audience make up our minds on how we feel about him. The only downside with that approach is the whole portrayal feels a little cold and remote, making an emotional investment in this man a tough thing to do. Towards the end, especially when the mishandled Ava Gardner romance subplot comes into play, it's even more difficult. Also not entirely convincing, though forgivable, is DiCaprio as a 40-something Hughes.
Still, whilst Scorsese has yet to end his dry spell (work with DeNiro again man won't you?), "The Aviator" is a definite step in the right direction. A better sense of editing, pacing, and a sharper focus - especially in the all too dreary second half, would've made this a great film. As it stands, it's a damn good picture that whilst not deserving of all the praise it's getting, is still a remarkable achievement.