Shiny Shelf

The Aviator

By Stephen Lavington on 21 December 2004

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

In Martin Scorsese’s ‘Casino’, ‘Ace’ Rothstein’s closing narration is peppered with snide references to the corporations who gradually took Las Vegas from the mafia and turned into a sanitised, Disneyfied family resort. One of the pioneers in this field was billionaire Howard Hughes who bought up several of the city’s big hotel complexes and it is he who is the subject of Scorsese’s latest film.

However, ‘The Aviator’ makes no reference to this tenuous connection, instead acting as homage to the derring-do and decadence of Golden Age Hollywood and the aviation entrepreneurs of the 1930’s and 40’s. After a brief glimpse of Hughes’ childhood we are rocketed from the set of ‘Hells Angels’ – his 1930 World War I epic – through his time as a record-setting aviator, the building of Hughes Aviation company, the construction of his ‘Spruce Goose’ (one of the largest aircraft in the world) and his ongoing battle with obsessive compulsive disorder.

The ensemble cast is great, and reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, in the use of a wide range of respected actors some of whom have only a few minutes screen time. As in that film the lead is crucial and, while the choice of Leo Di Caprio looks questionable, he does a remarkable job. It’s shocking to realise that this man-child can act, and act well when he has something to get his teeth into. The role of Hughes is a meaty one with a thick Texan accent, the brylcreem matinee idol looks and a plethora of tics and stutters as well as a few scenes of eccentricity bordering on the lunatic. Di Caprio carries it all well, though he is unavoidably boyish in looks – an Oscar nomination is definitely on the cards. The same is true of Cate Blanchett whose Katherine Hepburn is an astonishing achievement. Blanchett swaggers through the role with gusto, capturing the unmistakeable patrician accent to a tee, and completely swamping the bevy of other early-Hollywood lovelies invoked in the movie, including a beautiful, but insubstantial, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner. Other parts are thinner, including John C. Reilly as Hughes’ put-upon business manager, Ian Holm as a wacky mittel-european meteorologist, a magnificently greasy Alec Baldwin as the CEO of Pan-Am and an equally obsequious Alan Alda as his corrupt Senatorial crony. Hardly a duff acting note is struck throughout

Sadly the same is not true of the narrative. This is not to say it is boring. Scorsese knows pace and The Aviator rattles along at an amazing rate for a 3-hour long biopic. However, unlike Stone’s Nixon it lacks direction. It covers the difficulty of romantic commitment given his playboy lifestyle, his struggle with inner demons, his swashbuckling time as a test-pilot, his battle against established interests and his dreamy obsession with the possible rather than the practical. However, it never really establishes an anchor, Hughes lived, he did some exciting things, he went mad. There are no lessons to be learned, no great insights and, ultimately, nothing beyond the breezy but superficial story of Hughes’ adventures. This is quite probably a flaw with the subject matter. For all the bluster Hughes’ life was without lasting achievement; his movies are little remembered; his planes (for instance the Spruce Goose) were expensive failures and his relationships no more than passing flings. The most that can be said is that he lived life on the edge. But to what purpose? The answer, if it even exists, is not to be found in this film.

The glitzy blast of Casino is almost ten years old, with Martin Scorsese’s subsequent work veering from the nihilistic and forgettable ‘Bringing out the Dead’ to the bloated anticlimax of ‘Gangs of New York’. Will a Scorsese film ever again reach the heights of ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Raging Bull’ or ‘Goodfellas’? It’s difficult to say, but it is certain that this uninspiring if competent biopic is not that film.

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By Stephen Lavington

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