Sunday, January 09, 2005


The Aviator (2004)

Director: Martin Scorsese

* Warning * The following analysis discusses the entire film - including the ending.

The good news is Martin Scorsese’s 3 hour film is visually spectacular and completely engrossing from start (almost) to finish. Unfortunately, like any other big Hollywood adventure, the film is ultimately unsatisfying, superficial, and in this particular case, oddly incomplete. If you are satisfied with a biopic that gives broad brush strokes of character, focusing much more on actions than motivations, it is quite possible to love this film. It is more a bio-adventure racing along briskly, jumping from one astonishing accomplishment to another, then from one disaster to another, then back to triumphant sullied by the tragedy of Howard Hughes’s incurable insanity. Famous names are thrown around as supporting characters, most prominently Cate Blanchett's Katherine Hepburn, (a performance I loved despite mixed-reviews). But even here Scorsese is relying, I suppose, on us bringing our own biographic knowledge to flesh out Hepburn (and Ava Gardner), as there is little depth in the on screen portrayals.

Ultimately this is what disappoints – Scorsese's decision to make this much more an adventure story than a character study. We are shown, engrossingly I must admit, Hughes’s brash confidence as he makes the most expensive movie ever made (and than just as it is finished extremely late and extremely over-budget, he insists on shooting the whole film again because talking movies have made a big splash while Hell’s Angels was being created), builds and flies the fastest plane ever made, builds and flies the largest plane ever assembled, crashes and burns (literally) during a spy plane test flight, and recovers to establish TWA airlines and take on the far larger, dominant (and government connected) airline of his day (Pan-America).
(Side Note: Alan Alda as the corrupt Maine senator in Pan-Am’s pocket steals the show as far as I am concerned.)

But what disappoints is precisely Scorsese’s decision to make an action driven story rather than a character driven story. And it disappoints immensely, not because Scorsese botches the adventure (he doesn’t, it’s totally engrossing), but because he passes on the chance to flesh- out these amazing characters (Hughes, Hepburn, Gardner) and gives us instead fleshless figures. Icons, not people. The film disappoints because you have wonderful periphery actors (such as those playing Hughes’ money man, and engineer) and they have little acting to do. And what disappoints most terribly is the fact that Scorsese is a master of depicting and humanizing complex characters. It is difficult not to feel completely cheated when the director who brought us Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull has a character like Hughes with as much internal terrain to explore, and instead of treating Hughes like LaMotta, Scorsese treats Hughes like Indiana Jones. And here in lies the tragedy of The Aviator.

The story synopsis: Ater a brief tableau of Hughes from childhood, the story depicts Hughes’s life beginning in 1928 as he is audaciously filming a WWI epic called Hell’s Angels. The film is colossal, over budget, and years in the making. But the film, as Hughes’s other projects, is eventually finished and lauded by the world. He is similarly audacious and successful building airplanes, airlines, and taking on Senators. Tragedy strikes when he crashes and almost dies during a spy plane test run. The further tragedy of his mental illness hits hard after his crash recovery, and he spends weeks locked up in a windowless room by himself and completely out of his mind. Hughes must summon the will to return to public life when he is subpoenaed by a senator for war profiteering. He is victorious in his fight against the senator and returns to building aircraft, getting the Spruce Goose off the ground in the film’s climax. This climatic triumphant is short lived, however, as Hughes’s mental illness impinges on his victory. We are left with the reality that Hughes will continue to have this roller coaster of a life, with sever dips related to his mental state and world-renowned highs for his immense accomplishments.

Should you see it? Go with the expectations you normally bring to an action movie and you will love it. Go with the expectations you bring to a Scorsese biopic and it will disappoint.

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