Even though I rarely like Martin Scorsese’s movies (The Gangs of New York being the notable exception), I’d never deny the fact he’s one of the greats of modern American film.
I have mixed feelings about The Aviator, Scorsese’s massive biopic on Howard Hughes. This is a brilliantly made movie, a true filmmaker’s film. I love the way it was made. I admire the recreation of the era — both visually (the early scenes occasionally affect hues that resemble early Technicolor) and in sound (even the recreated music has an utterly authentic period feel). I’ve no qualms with the acting, and the film manages to be constantly entertaining for its nearly three-hour length.
What it does not manage — at least from my perspective — is to be emotionally involving. Oh, yes, I got caught up in Hughes’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) battle with corrupt Senator Brewster (Alan Alda) and Pan Am president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), but that was on the level of clever plot mechanics. There never seemed to be a feeling for Hughes the man, and as a result, the film offers no real emotional resonance.
And so the movie ultimately comes across as a brilliant exercise in surface filmmaking, for the most part. But the film does better on the one level that perhaps most attracted Scorsese to the subject: the material that deals with Hughes’ Hollywood experiences.
The Hollywood scenes do tend to simplify certain details. For example, no mention is made of Hughes bringing in James Whale to direct all the nonaerial footage for the talkie version of Hell’s Angels, giving the impression that Hughes was the sole director — despite the fact that Scorsese includes clips of scenes that Whale shot. Still, the Hollywood section of the film is the strongest in terms of character content. That’s not too surprising, since Scorsese is as big a movie geek as there ever was.
At points, the chronology seems a little faulty. It’s more than unlikely that Hughes would take someone to a showing of The Jazz Singer in 1929 to show the need for reshooting Hell’s Angels as a talkie — especially since The Jazz Singer is a 1927 film and there were a lot of talkies on screens by 1929. (I got a kick out of seeing Al Jolson singing “Blue Skies” on the big screen in a modern multiplex, though, and I’d be surprised if Scorsese, the movie fan, didn’t smile at this prospect himself.)
What’s more, sometimes the casting seems a little curious. It’s easy to get past the facial dissimilarity of Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, because Blanchett has the voice and mannerisms so down pat that you forget the physical differences. But why cast Gwen Stefani (lead singer from No Doubt) as Jean Harlow? For her performance? The woman has one line, which she delivers in a very non-Harlow voice (and compared to Harlow, Stefani has a proboscis the size of New Hampshire). Jude Law’s cameo as Errol Flynn isn’t much better, though Law sounds more or less right and has the movie’s funniest line when he responds to someone calling him a “limey bastard.”
Even so, the scenes involving Hughes in Hollywood, which become less central as the film progresses, hit far higher notes than the rest of the movie. Scorsese presents moviemaker Hughes as a kind of Charles Foster Kane with a movie camera instead of a newspaper. Much like Orson Welles’ Kane, Hughes is constantly being told how he’s losing money at a rapid rate on his project. And like Kane, Hughes keeps pouring the seemingly endless family fortune into his film.
This is a workable and at times exhilarating approach — whether or not viewers fully grasp the techno-geekery involved in some of Hughes’ hurdles — because it has an energy, a drive, that’s infectious. The more the film moves toward Hughes’ obsessions with aviation and big business for its own sake, the less sure it seems to be in how to get that same feeling across, though Scorsese holds on to the movie connection as long as the narrative allows. In this way, he enlivens The Aviator with bits and pieces of further Hollywoodiana — as in the scene where he defends the size of Jane Russell’s “mammaries” in his production The Outlaw to Joseph Breen (Edward Herrmann) and the production code board.
But as the film moves toward the battle with Pan Am and Hughes’ increasing bouts with mental problems, it becomes grounded more in the mere story than in the man. These later parts feature perfectly good storytelling and some thrilling filmmaking, but they’re not on a par with the rest of the movie. Worse, since it’s the last section of the film, it distances the viewer from the human side of its subject.
In the end, The Aviator comes across as great filmmaking that just never quite comes together to produce a great film. But as great filmmaking, it’s pretty darned exciting stuff. You may even find yourself occasionally echoing the film’s Katharine Hepburn and saying, “Golly!” — and not too many movies can prompt that reaction. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke