Wing And A Prayer Merchant
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Next up is 2004’s drama The Aviator reviewed by Andrew Colman…
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo Di Caprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale
2004’s The Aviator saw the Scorsese / DiCaprio team reunite after the success of Gangs of New York, which had allowed the arthouse director to produce more commercial movies without compromise, thanks to his new, marketable, matinee idol muse. Detailing the life and times of Howard Hughes via one of the copious biographies about him that was available at the time, Scorsese’s project about the film magnate and aviation pioneer was by no means the first regarding him, nor the last – indeed, the myth surrounding the enigmatic and driven Hughes still had a high profile in pop culture even then, which meant that Marty’s take had to wade through all the speculation, historical intrigue and self-promotion to get to the man himself.
The film itself is forensic in its cataloguing of every bullet point in Hughes’s life, stopping short of his terminal decline into seclusion. Portrayed as a mercurial force of nature, we are briefed at the outset about the source of the obsessive compulsive disorders that would later engulf him, and from there, into early adulthood he hits the ground running, his work ethic approaching madness, his attitude to women equally eccentric. From demanding ludicrous recuts and reshoots of his first outing as producer with Hell’s Angels, to romancing Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) to building aeroplanes capable of transcontinental flight, Hughes’s OCD belies his charm, suave exterior and playboy status, rendering him the ultimate perfectionist and control freak.
From there, Hughes’s compulsions lead him to purchase TWA, which rapidly put him at loggerheads with Pan American Airways chairman Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and his factotum in the senate, Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), who drafts the Community Airline Bill in order to ruin him, and (later on) organizes an FBI led witch hunt against him over war profiteering. After Hepburn leaves him for Spencer Tracy, Hughes dates Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) who shuns him as he recedes into paranoid isolation.
Visually The Aviator is a triumph – each era captured with contemporaneous film techniques, including colourized stock footage. The costumes, art direction and production values meant that on a cinematic level, the movie would always be definitive. As for the cast, it is hard to find much fault with any of them – Blanchett gives a masterclass in method reproduction with her Oscar-winning turn as Katharine Hepburn, even if she overcooks things considerably. Better still is Alan Alda’s slippery, disingenuous senator, all smug confidence and passive aggression. Alec Baldwin’s Juan Trippe is decent, as is John C. Reilly as Hughes’s right hand man Noah Dietrich, although Kate Beckinsale is somewhat one note and shrewish as Ava Gardner.
As for the leading man? DiCaprio wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice for Hughes, despite possessing the looks and poise required. His performance does grow on you as the film progresses however, although it has to be said that there’s less to this Hughes chappie than meets the eye. Portraying such a fanatical soul meant that DiCaprio only had two emotions available to him – exasperation and obdurate pushiness. Granted, as his disorder takes over and weakens him, we learn a little more about what made Hughes tick, but eliciting nuance out of brattish monomania was always going to be a tall order, and we don’t feel much closer to him as the curtain falls. It is to DiCaprio’s credit that the impossibly self-centred Hughes is not just humanized beyond the standard tabloid shorthand, but also sympathetic. At the senate hearing in which Hughes is being indicted for profligately throwing public funds at his indulgent wartime projects, we side with him, and are gratified to see him unchain himself and defeat his nemeses in the process.
Regardless of how the movie plays, it is still a conventional tale told in a fairly linear manner – one could say that this is Scorsese channelling Spielberg, and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that if the wunderkind had been on board the film wouldn’t have been that different. However there are some superb moments, stylings and motifs throughout – the press camera lights eternally flashing and bursting, studio bosses’ brylcreemed aloofness, the surreal glamour of cliquish old Hollywood – it’s all very captivating and easy on the eye. As polished a film as Scorsese ever produced, it is also one of the least challenging, regardless of the unvarnished purdah experienced by Hughes towards the end. With so much to shoehorn in, the film does at times fall into the biopic trap of being a whistle stop tour, despite Scorsese trying his best to avoid it. However one cannot fault it for its entertainment value and its deft, if not exquisite handling of the action scenes, especially the crash sequence that nearly claimed Hughes’s life.
The Aviator went on to do remarkably well at the box office, and led to the crystallising of the Scorsese / DiCaprio partnership, that went from strength to strength with The Departed, Shutter Island and the most lucrative of all, The Wolf of Wall Street. One could almost say the team-up maintained Scorsese’s pre-eminence in the marketplace, albeit as a more mainstream director. But considering what was produced, one can only admire the veteran filmmaker’s sustained excellence and commitment after so long in the business.
Here’s the film’s trailer
Here’s the other Month Of Marty reviews so far as well