(PG-13) 4 starsEd Johnson-Ott
Martin Scorsese presents the story of freaky billionaire industrialist, Hollywood film mogul and playboy Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), covering his life from the late 1920s through the 1940s, a period when Hughes was making movies, testing aircrafts he designed and created and dating glamorous actresses. Good gig. The film doesn't dig very deep, but it is consistently entertaining and, for the most part, the two hours, 46 minutes running time gallops by.
As with most biographies, the film plays loose with the facts. Key characters arrive at the wrong point in Hughes' life, or are absent entirely. Scorsese, working from a screenplay by Josh Logan, feels comfortable rearranging reality in order to make his film snappier, a practice which always leaves me mystified. If you find the story of a man so compelling that you wish to make a movie about it, shouldn't you feel compelled to get the facts correct? It seems so obvious. The saddest thing, of course, is that, for many people, the movie biography version of the subject's life will be the only one they know.
In this case, I suspect Mr. Hughes would be happy with the Scorsese take on his Earthly existence. After all, he gets to be daring and dashing for most of the movie. The film cuts off before he reaches the full-fledged bull-goose loony period of his life and, when an extended sequence focuses full-square on his obsessive-compulsive disorder, he at least is shown to be quite physically fit while ranting and raving and pacing about in the nude. I don't know about you, but if I were to be shown on the screen having a mental breakdown whilst naked, I would certainly hope that the actor playing me was buff.
That scene, by the way, is very effective and touching, even if it goes on a bit too long. In fact, the film is chock full of very effective scenes, most of which do not overstay their welcome. Scorsese is a master with film and he works magic repeatedly here. The Aviator may be less than cohesive, but many of the fragments are spectacular, from the dazzling aerial displays to the stirring romantic sequences to a whale of a scene where Hughes appears before a congressional committee and sets matters straight with force and elegance.
Oh sure, I'm still wondering how Hughes went from being a veritable basket case in one scene to being an eloquent, assured public speaker in the next.
But I digress.
The Aviator looks and sounds great, thanks in part to cinematographer Robert Richardson, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti and musical director Howard Shore. The stylized visuals of Hollywood nicely fit the larger-than-life presentation of Hughes. Kudos to the stellar cast, especially Leonardo DiCaprio, who carries himself very well, and Cate Blanchett, who steals the show as Katharine Hepburn. She doesn't look like Hepburn or sound precisely like her, but Blanchett captures the magic of the woman, that unique blend of fragility and authority. Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Kate Beckinsale, Jude Law and the always wonderful John C. Reilly also make fine contributions.
A final complaint. The film opens with a ridiculous bit of business involving Mama Hughes bathing young Howard and talking about contagion. I think it's intended to be his "origin" scene, like when the radioactive spider bites Peter Parker in Spider-Man. To best enjoy The Aviator, I suggest you ignore the unfortunate bit of pop psychology silliness, remind yourself that what you are about to see takes liberties with the truth, then sit back and enjoy the big, juicy Hollywood epic.