Saturday, March 11, 2017

Before I Die #598: The Aviator (2004)

This is the 598th movie I've watched out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through. 

Director: Martin Scorsese

Despite being a major fan of Scorsese, I had somehow never watched this movie from start to finish. Now that I've put in the required two hours and forty-five minutes, I can say that it's a really solid film that I enjoyed, even if I don't count it among his very best. Bear in mind that this is no slight, given that Scorsese has several all-time great movies to his credit.

Based on a spotty biography, The Aviator tracks the key twenty-year period in the life of Howard Hughes, the infamously eccentric and undeniably talented businessman and American aviator. The movie starts with Hughes at age 21, just as he inherits the sizable tool business his parents created and ran in Texas. Hughes brings the company to near collapse as he funds a massive war picture independent of any major movie studio. Although he burns through nearly all of his considerable fortune, Hughes manages to release the movie to great success, launching him into the spotlight and on a run of tremendous business successes over the next few decades. He designs and test flies planes, buys and runs an airline company, and takes on the aviation giant of the day, Pan Am, and the powerful senator who supports it. In these two decades, Hughes essentially grows his wealth enough to poise himself to become the richest man in the country. The problem is that his own mental problems grow worse and worse, hinting at the infamously reclusive and bizarre behavior that would mark the succeeding decades of his life.

The Aviator is, like virtually all of Scorsese's films, highly watchable. The legendary director has such a keen sense of pacing, dialogue, and scene construction, that his take on such a dynamic figure as Howard Hughes was bound to be engaging, and it is. As he has shown in his most well-known films like Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Casino, Scorsese can take highly energetic and volatile characters and make them sing on screen. With The Aviator, Scorsese was dealing with the largest group of notable celebrities that he's ever dealt with, starting with Hughes but also including the likes of Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and plenty of other screen legends who were noted for their strong personalities. The story sets them up to have plenty of engaging interactions, mostly revolving around Hughes's increasingly erratic and paranoid behavior. Many of the scenes are played for drama, but almost as many are played for humor, nearly all to excellent effect.

As a personal aside, I have to confess that the only element of the movie that annoyed me was Katharine Hepburn. This has nothing to do with Cate Blanchett's portrayal of the film legend, which is nearly spot-on, but rather my general annoyance at the real Hepburn's affect. I've watched a good number of Hepburn's classic movies, and I've always found her "Mid-Atlantic" accent highly grating (that bizarre, made up accent has its own odd little story, too). In The Aviator, Blanchett fully embraces the character, as she stomps around, going toe-to-toe with the equally head-strong Hughes. I actually admire Hepburn's progressive attitudes and general take on life. But that accent? I can't get over it.

One of the many scenes to display the lavish places, costumes,
and powerful entertainers seen throughout the movie. Nearly
every scene is fun to watch, even if there isn't exactly a
compelling narrative thread to tie them all together.
Back to the movie as a whole. While nearly all of the individual scenes and sequences are outstanding, there is a lack of a completely cohesive story. The nearly 3-hour film strongly hints at a few themes and clear points about Hughes, but it never completely resolves any of them or creates a single compelling arc. The only theme or trait that seems to be present throughout the movie is Hughes's increasingly severe mental disorder. However, there are still many questions left unanswered by the movie's end, as he is still functional enough to oversee much of his aviation business. When one reads a bit more about Hughes, one realizes that his truly severe mental fragmentation continued for another two decades after the timeline covered in this film. The movie thus feels incomplete, which is certainly odd for such a lengthy story. It almost seems as if a TV miniseries of 8 or 10 episodes would have done such a biopic more justice.

Like many of Scorsese's best movies, this is one in which the individual scenes are so masterfully crafted and entertaining, that you could channel surf your way into any part of it, settle in, and just ride it all out by enjoying each sequence. I've read some original reviews that weren't terribly impressed with DiCaprio's performance, but I found him to be excellent, right along with the rest of the supporting cast. Such acting, along with a tight script and under the guidance of an all-time great director, make for a highly enjoyable film, if not exactly a historically brilliant one.

That's 598 movies down. Only 589 to go before I can die.