Flight or Fright
Scorsese and DiCaprio capture the conflicted prime of Howard Hughes.
Thursday, December 23, 2004
It’s been seven years since Leonardo DiCaprio woo-hoo’d his way into catchphrase immortality from the prow of a certain doomed ocean liner. After approximately 10 million rotations of “My Heart Will Go On”—not to mention The Man in the Iron Mask, The Beach, Gangs of New York, and even the pretty damn decent Catch Me if You Can—DiCaprio seemed doomed himself, destined to be remembered primarily as “the guy from Titanic,” with occasional props from fans of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Growing Pains, and nods from gossip columnists for his supermodel conquests.
Fortunately for the actor, and for film fans who’ve been less than dazzled by 2004’s cinematic output, The Aviator is poised to change all that. Not only is DiCaprio spot-on as the complex, charismatic, and occasionally ca-ca-crazy Howard Hughes, but also director Martin Scorsese is officially back in play—if he’s awarded the Best Director Oscar in February, it’ll be because of The Aviator’s merits, not because people think it’s about freakin’ time he wins the thing. Scorsese’s no stranger to movies about offbeat outsiders, but Hughes—more so than, say, Jake La Motta or Travis Bickle—puts the “hero” in antihero; he also lends himself to broad-appeal, PG-13 storytelling, with far less violence (or lovingly excessive F-word usage) than most Scorsese pictures past.
The movie kicks in circa 1927, as showbiz newcomer Hughes, heir to a drill-bit fortune, draws snickers from industry bigwigs with his ambitious production of Hell’s Angels. The war epic takes years to film, including in one scene that illustrates Hughes perfectionist ways, an eight-month wait for the right kind of clouds to appear and form a backdrop for a crucial dogfight sequence.
Though Hughes Hollywood experiences are a key component of The Aviator, his obsession with flight takes paramount importance. The Aviator spans Hughes life though 1947, during which time he sets an air-speed record; circles the world in less than four days; purchases TWA airlines; draws up plans for the largest airplane ever made, the infamous Spruce Goose; designs experimental spy planes; and, most dramatically, survives a fiery crash during a test flight over Beverly Hills. He also faces down a hostile US Senate committee, triumphing, in the best movie-climax way, over accusations of corruption.
DiCaprio is on-screen nearly every moment, and—physically speaking—isn’t necessarily convincing as a man who ages some 20 years over the course of the movie. Not that it really matters. He may stay baby-faced throughout, but he’s still effective, whether he’s soaring above Los Angeles or reliving Hughes dark-night-of-the-soul nervous breakdown sequence, complete with long fingernails, pale nakedness, and a soldier-straight line of urine-filled milk bottles. But DiCaprio’s at his best when Hughes grip on sanity just barely begins to waver—as when, mid-negotiation to purchase millions of dollars of airplanes, he’s paralyzed by a speck of lint on another man’s lapel.
For all its big, stylish, jazzy flair, The
Aviator is really about these tiny, taut flashes. They may
not be as instantly quotable as other tracks off Scorsese’s
greatest hits (the Ronettes, “You talkin’ to me?,”
tracking-shot heaven, etc.), but they supply just enough
poignancy in a film that otherwise might be too in awe of its
subject. Hughes may be a man who’s unafraid to take the air in
a brand-new plane and fly it faster than any human has ever
flown before, but he’s also a man who becomes trapped inside a
public rest room, too terrified to touch the doorknob and free
himself. That Scorsese and DiCaprio are able to infuse both
types of scenes with equal amounts of tension is easily The
Aviator’s standout feat.
THE AVIATOR ( * * * * 1/2 )
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale
(Rated PG-13, Two hours, 46 mins.)