Bird's-eye view of high flyer
There's no denying that Martin Scorsese's The Aviator is a flawed film. It plays fast and loose with the chronology of the historic events it so loving re-creates, proves difficult to become engaged with initially because it drops us into the middle of a whirlwind of activity, and at times assaults the audience rather than entertains it. Yet in the end, it's safe to say that no other film released in 2004 was as ambitious in its scope or in its intention to tell a fascinating life story in an innovative way. It's easy to forgive Scorsese for allowing his ambition to exceed his reach, and the film does manage to right itself after its wobbly first 45 minutes to become one of the more memorable films of the year.
Much like Taylor Hackford's Ray, released earlier this year, The Aviator portrays its subject as a man who overcame great adversity to succeed grandly on the world stage. The life of Howard Hughes was a complicated and troubled one; Hughes was afflicted by paranoia and a wide variety of phobias, the most paralyzing being his fear of germs, a condition that would eventually drive him into seclusion at the age of 47. Having inherited a fortune at 18 when his father died (the elder Hughes had invented a drill bit that revolutionized the oil business), Hughes grew bored with his native Texas and set his sights on Hollywood. Moving there two years after his father's death, the young man began making films independently, a practice unheard of at the time, while pouring untold amounts of money into his other passion, aviation and flying, helping develop sleek, modern aircraft that would give rise to the nation's passenger-airline business.
Hughes's life was a whirlwind and at times chaotic, a quality Scorsese re-creates by assailing us with one dizzying sequence after another. Whether showing him spiraling in the sky in a biplane while filming his multimillion-dollar epic Hell's Angels or being bombarded by an army of photographers while out on the town, the director brilliantly shows us the mania Hughes unwittingly generated and spent the rest of his life trying to avoid.
As spectacular as Scorsese's vision is, it would all be for naught if it weren't for Leonardo DiCaprio's finely realized and ultimately moving performance as Hughes. Here DiCaprio re-establishes himself as the finest actor of his generation, creating a convincing life arc as he goes from a gawky but confident young man of 19 to a reclusive, shattered middle-aged soul battling for his sanity without missing a beat. There isn't a false moment throughout as DiCaprio grounds Scorsese's bombastic vision by giving the film a sense of humanity that makes it all worthwhile. His efforts give The Aviator wings and allow it to soar.
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