Sunday, February 14, 2010

Movie Review: The Aviator (2004) - 4 stars

The Aviator takes a little while to find its legs, but once it does, it never looks back. I'm not sure if there's been a better director/actor relationship over the past ten years than Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, and this film could very well be their best. To date, DiCaprio has three Oscar nominations, and it should be double that. He should have at least one win, preferably for this remarkable portrayal of Howard Hughes. It's one of the best performances I've seen in a biopic.

Hughes was a fascinating man. After a brief, but important sequence between Mrs. Hughes and a young Howard, Scorsese thrusts us right into the filming of Hell's Angels, when Hughes was still only 22 years old. He had been filming for quite some time, and already spent millions of dollars, but when he realized that the film needed sound to be successful, he dug deeper into his pocket and re-filmed the whole darn thing. It then went on to premiere in Hollywood to a standing ovation. This is the type of man Hughes was. When he started something, he didn't finish it until it was perfect.

As a result of the sprawling war epic that was Hell's Angles, Hughes discovered another passion buried within himself: aviation. In this field (as well as film), he was years, maybe even decades ahead of his time, and he was one of the hardest working man on the planet. When he successfully built the world's fastest plane, he didn't stop to celebrate. He began to work on building the world's largest plane, The Hercules. This relentless ambition that Hughes never lost was not only his saving grace, but also his Achilles' heel. As he publicly stated, if he did not successfully fly The Hercules, then he would exile himself from the United States. To ensure that this wouldn't happen, he would give up any amount of time and money. Nobody in those days could earn like Howard Hughes, but there was also nobody else who could spend like him.

Hughes also had a lot of women in his life. There was the authoritative, adventurous Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blachett), the beautiful, independent Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and the all-too-young Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner). There were several more, of course, and for good reason. Hughes was an insecure man. He needed women around him, and often times even payed them to be with him. The closest he ever came to finding true love was with Hepburn, but when she fell in love with Spencer Tracy, she left him. From then on, Hughes couldn't find a companion that saw him for who he really was. He had the company of many women, but it wasn't real company. They failed to notice the demons that truly defined him. He was an extreme obsessive-compulsive, and throughout this film, you would be hard pressed to find a single doctor that cared for him, and it is a tragic thing. People rarely accomplish self-growth when they try to confront their demons in isolation.

In the expansion of Hughes' airline, Trans World Airlines, is where The Aviator finds its most gripping subplot. Throughout Hughes' lifetime, there has only been one airline who controlled the international waters, and that was Juan Trippe's (Alec Baldwin) Pan American Airlines. Hughes fought long and hard to earn the right to fly internationally, but Trippe solicited the help of Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) to make sure that didn't happen. Brewster, who represents the film's most powerful villain, presented an act (largely written by Trippe himself) that would call for a Pan Am monopoly on the international circuit.

After learning of this, Hughes fell into severe depression. He locks himself in his screening room, drinking milk bottles and urinating into the empty ones. When he's done, he lines them neatly against the wall. He doesn't shave, he doesn't eat. It is in these scenes that a devastating DiCaprio shows us just how tortured this man really is. After months and months of isolation, and with some help from Ms. Gardner, Hughes finally makes his way into the court room, and he dominates Brewster every second of the way.

The battle between Alda and DiCaprio is one of the finest performed court room sequences I've seen in some time, and it was, for me, the emotional payoff of the entire film. Yes, Hughes is still that tortured man by the film's end, but these scenes prove the genius that he really was. He showed up in the court room after months of depression, and he simply took over. He didn't have to prepare for the hearings because he knew deep down that he never did anything wrong. Brewster's claims were ludicrous, and Hughes turned him into a defenseless bully.

The film's final shot shows DiCaprio repeating the phrase "the way of the future." His compulsive disorder isn't solely a germ issue, but several times during the film, DiCaprio is seen repeating phrases, sometimes as much as ten or twenty times in a row. By ending on such a note, Scorsese is able to accomplish a couple of things. For one, he basically sums up who Howard Hughes really was. He was always a step ahead of the competition, always looking into the future. Scorsese is also able to foreshadow the deterioration of this man without necessarily dragging the film out until his death. Hughes died on April 5, 1976 from kidney failure and malnutrition among other things. At the time of his death, Hughes was 6'2" tall, and he weighed only 90 pounds. Listen to DiCaprio's voice as this film cuts to black, and you will understand the tragedies that lied within the bones of Howard Hughes.

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