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THE AVIATOR

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law
Director:  Martin Scorsese
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  170 Minutes
Release Date:  May 24, 2005

"Everybody works for you, Howard."

Film ****

The Aviator is the kind of mighty spectacle we haven't seen much since the golden days of Hollywood.  And truth be told, we really didn't see anything quite like it's kind back then, either.  It plays more like a sense memory of a time that never really existed, with Technicolor skies and silver planes that ravished them with grace and exhilarating speed.

But it is, first and foremost, the story of Howard Hughes (DiCaprio)...aviator, filmmaker, industrial pioneer.  He was all of those things and more, yet under the watchful eye of director Martin Scorsese, he seems like a gambler first and foremost.  He may have been the richest man in America in his day, but he took outrageous risks with his money, pushing his fortunes to the breaking point and beyond, and lived life seemingly with the sword of Damocles always hanging over his head.  Yet he managed to beat the odds time and time again with a stubborn charm.  It's no wonder Scorsese seemed to feel a kinship for him.

Hughes was eccentric and more...as his fame and reputation grew, his personal demons did, too, and at certain points in The Aviator, we wonder if they're going to destroy him.  He suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, was phobic about germs, and as his success grew, so did his paranoia.  At one point, he's poised to use a small airline called TWA to take on the entire world, but at the same time, he gets trapped in the men's room because he's too panicked to touch the doorknob.

Though we first glimpse Howard as a youth getting his first lessons in germs, the film mostly concentrates on the period of his life from his first great triumph to his last one.  It almost ends on a high note, but after the exciting climax, our last glimpse of Howard is as his mind starts to short circuit on him once again.

His first great success was Hell's Angels, a film that cost an unheard of $4 million in the late 20s, and one that the obsessive Howard spent four years trying to perfect.  The press and Hollywood were ready to pounce on it as the greatest screen folly of all time, but Hughes' radical dogfight footage made the movie an event picture everyone had to see.

At the other end of the spectrum was his Hercules aircraft, a 2,000 ton flying boat with a wingspan longer than a football field designed to carry troops and full artillery safely over the oceans out of range of German submarines.  Again, it was thought that Howard was out of his mind trying to get something so ridiculously cumbersome to fly.  Yet fly it did...if only once.

In between, Scorsese explores the life of Howard as a man and an American icon...a man who became successful by taking daring chances and breaking all the rules.  The fact that he did so with an increasingly debilitating mental disorder and growing fear of the general public and the world around him is something worth marveling at. 

Here was a man who pushed the boundaries of cinematic tastes (his Scarface depicted screen violence like never before, and The Outlaw was built from Jane Russell's bosom up) and aviation as well, flying faster and further and higher than any man before him.  His fortunes were legendary, but add all of that up, and here was a man who was never really quite as glamorous as his gossip magazine stories made him out to be.  At one point, he's so withdrawn that he can barely function.  Yet, continuing his legacy of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, he manages to pull himself together and present himself to the world before a Senate hearing that threatened to ruin him once and for all.  Was it luck, perseverance or skill?  Maybe all, maybe none.

Hughes had many beautiful women in his life, and The Aviator focuses largely on two...Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett in her Oscar-winning performance) made for wonderful pairing with him; while he was frequently introverted and uncomfortable under the spotlight, Hepburn was flamboyant, larger than life, and loud enough for the two of them.  Later, Ava Gardner (the luminous Beckinsale) was too tough a cookie for him to crack.  But she showed her true colors by reaching out to Howard when he most needed it.

Scorsese's film plays like a love letter to old Hollywood.  It looks and feels like a grand Tinseltown epic from a time when pictures were big and stars were bigger, but that's only a foundation.  He builds something even loftier using modern technologies and sensibilities.  Howard Hughes himself could have only wished his planes and movies soared like The Aviator.  I can picture him hunkered thoughtfully in his private theatre, viewing this movie and getting fresh ideas in his head about how to do it bigger and bolder, if not necessarily better.

The Oscar winning cinematography creates the image of a Hollywood that never existed except in our deepest fantasies.  It's like a picture postcard from a long lost time come to life.  This is the world we imagine Howard Hughes conquering time and time again.

But the real anchor of the picture is Leonardo DiCaprio, who delivered his greatest performance to date as the troubled Hughes.  Leo never hits a false note, capturing Hughes in all his glory and torment.  When he's in his most frail moments, you can almost see the shutdown behind his eyes, as his body and face collapse into messes of psychological tics and tremors.  It's a thorough character exploration with no stone unturned, and DiCaprio's Oscar nod was well deserved.

Of course, the big story on Oscar night was not the film's five wins, most of any movie of the year, but the fact that once again, Martin Scorsese was passed over for the golden statuette.  For me, like many long time fans, it was a hard disappointment to swallow.  I loved this movie and still pick it as best film of last year, but more than that, I thought if Scorsese ever had a chance to score the Academy Award, this was the movie that would have done it for him.  Not only was it grand in scale, but it was such a wonderful recreation of Hollywood's heydays that it screamed out for Oscar recognition for him...not to be.

But The Aviator flies with or without Oscar gold for its director...it's an old fashioned epic told in the most personal of terms, like looking through a microscope and discovering a whole new universe.  First and foremost, it's a smashing slice of entertainment that you can watch over and over again.

Video ***1/2

When I saw this film in theatres, I thought it had the best cinematography of the year (and Oscar later agreed), and I was expecting sheer perfection on DVD.  This anamorphic transfer from Warner comes close to delivering it, with all of Robert Richardson's colorful photography coming to glorious life on your home theatre screen.  However, the near 3 hour running time with lots of big scenes lent to a little visible compression in some of the quieter moments...a bit of haze can be seen on still deep backgrounds.  It's only now and then, and not terribly distracting, but worth pointing out in an otherwise stellar video offering.

NOTE:  This disc is also available in pan & scan, but please opt for the widescreen version.  Scorsese's visual compositions deserve to be seen in their full scope ratio; you're cheating yourself otherwise.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack packs a wallop with its many big sequences.  When Howard's airplanes roar through the skies, you'll feel the vibrations of the engines.  Big crowd sequences make use of front and rear channels, and the subwoofer gives kick to the moments of action.  Spoken words are clean and clear throughout, and the audio is presented with no noise or noticeable flaws.

Features ***1/2

Disc One of this double disc set boasts a commentary track with Martin Scorsese, his Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and producer Michael Mann, recorded separately but edited together smoothly.  Martin does most of the talking, which will please film fans, as he's both a master and fan of the medium and very generous with his thoughts and ideas.

Disc Two features an additional scene and a total of nine documentaries that cover the making of the film, the visual effects, looks at the real Howard Hughes (including his influence on modern aviators and his mental afflictions) a History Channel program on Hughes, and an evening with Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda, right after both actors got word of their Oscar nominations.  A soundtrack spot and stills gallery rounds out the features.

Summary:

Sorry, Clint...I loved your movie, but in a head to head contest, The Aviator wins by a technical knockout in the last round.  For full out Hollywood entertainment value, a slice of Americana and a fascinating character study of a larger than life legend, Martin Scorsese's picture is 2004's true crowning achievement.

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