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The Aviator   B

Miramax Films / Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Jude Law, Gwen Stefani, Kelli Garner.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

Blockbuster entertainments released in December equal Oscar contenders. But do bigger movies equal better movies, or just bigger ones? The Aviator is a movie with everything going for it: Martin Scorsese in the director's chair, Leonardo DiCaprio as an American legend-slash-eccentric-slash-insane recluse, a great score by Howard Shore (Spider), magical and vibrant images from Robert Richardson (JFK), and luminous movie star/great actress Cate Blanchett as luminous movie star/great actress Kate Hepburn. It also manages to transform the story of a larger-than-life freak into an American idealist, because America (and the Oscars) loves a winner. Surely you must be kidding.

All right, to be fair: Hughes was indeed an epic figure. In his prime, he made movies with gargantuan budgets, was an all-powerful airline magnate, and romanced Hollywood starlets. He also collected samples of his own urine and nail clippings. The Aviator exists so we the audience can marvel, "What an amazing man! What a strange man!" And we're put into a state of wonder as he battles against the U.S. government to save his beloved TWA airlines against Pan Am president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and a corrupt politician (Alan Alda). We're swooning as he dates Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). And we're astonished at the millions of dollars he's throwing away. Or are we? Is this the stuff that dreams are made of, or are we rubbing our noses in excess?

The Aviator never challenges this notion. If it is a warts-and-all portrait of the rich and infamous, it is also in adoration of great men and the lovely women on their arm. So Hughes is an eccentric, yeah -- but The Aviator asks us to marvel at his excess. Scorsese hasn't built a movie with such a rickety foundation since he claimed that America was born in the streets during Gangs of New York. To his credit, these are two remarkably done films in every way: well acted, exquisitely photographed and designed, muscular and intense. But they are built on puerile notions. A far more interesting street fight was waged between the Son of Man and his Father in The Last Temptation of Christ; a more compelling portrait of the gnarled American psyche could be found in Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy. In comparison, The Aviator is a big-movie lightweight.

The airline feud is difficult to relate to because it's a corporate visionary (?) versus the government. Are we to care about either symbol of greed, simply because Hughes is weirder? And Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner is a pretty girl in a pretty dress with pretty hair, but Beckinsale is hopelessly outmatched by Leonardo DiCaprio's Hughes -- to say nothing of Cate Blanchett's scenery-munching Hepburn, who walks away with the movie, and when she leaves Howard all the life's blood is drawn out of The Aviator too.

But America loves a winner. The Aviator is a marvel to behold, and one is quickly convinced that Scorsese can take even the most threadbare screenplay and make it bold and immediate. Swept up in the glory of making Hell's Angels (an epic war picture produced by Hughes), Scorsese stages staged dogfights in the movie within the movie with such verge and vitality that you're placed within his world of filmmaking. He may be living on a movie fan's island, like Hughes was living on his own peculiar cloud, but Scorsese's enthusiasm is infectious.

He also paints a compelling picture of the rich and famous as being trapped under the heat of flashbulbs and paparazzi. Though it's difficult to feel sorry for the privileged, there's something in the scenes where Kate Hepburn and Howard Hughes are able to momentarily escape (in the so-called privacy of their gardens, their offices, their plush bedrooms); and if any character is to be admired in The Aviator it is Hepburn herself. Unapologetic about being a Yankee blueblood, proud of being athletic and vigorous, and unashamed of both her glamour and her brimming curiosity, Hepburn's one of those people who came alive on the screen as a completely unique woman. We fell in love with her for it. Cate Blanchett is unable to reproduce Hepburn, and though her performance teeters just on the edge of caricature it's undeniable that The Aviator takes off whenever she shows up. If Blanchett can't quite be Hepburn, she gives it the college try and comes close enough.

Now when will the picture makers wise up and realize that one woman's pluck is far more exciting than a bunch of men in suits, a bunch of senators, a bunch of airplanes taking off? You could stage an epic battle sequence on land and sea and it would pale next to Kate Hepburn's luster, and Cate Blanchett holding the flame. In fact, Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes could learn a thing or two from her. DiCaprio's performance is at its best when he's with her; and when she's gone it's no wonder that Hughes sinks into the morass. DiCaprio and Scorsese work near the peak of their powers, and the resulting big-budget Oscar entertainment middles somewhere in between.

Review published 12.14.2004.

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