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Aviator, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 24 May 2005

The Aviator
Warner Bros. Home Video
MPAA rating: PG-13
starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin
theatrical release year: 2004
DVD release year: 2005
film rating: Five Stars
sound/picture rating: Four Stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

The first part here is a condensed version of our review of the theatrical release of “The Aviator.” Notes on the DVD follow.

This movie may have been instrumental in changing the current common image of Howard Hughes as a wacky old miser holed up in a series of Las Vegas hotels, his hair and fingernails grown long, hoarding his own urine. However he ended up, he was one of the most remarkable individuals of the 20th Century, in some ways the emblem of that century: a lanky guy from Texas, a multi-millionaire by his early twenties, who barged into Hollywood, made one of the greatest early talkies, romanced famous stars, set aerial speed records, took TWA from a minor carrier to one of the world’s major airlines. He was a brilliant inventor and engineer, loyal to those who were loyal to him, a major figure in business, and a man whose sanity drained away over the years. And he thought of himself as an aviator.

“The Aviator” is an epic on the same scale as Hughes himself: spectacular, intimate and deeply engrossing. The true climax of the film, when Hughes takes his mammoth Hercules (commonly called The Spruce Goose) up into the air for its one and only flight, is astonishingly exciting and, unexpectedly, deeply moving. You find yourself cheering Hughes on, urging him to this one last triumph.

Leonardo di Caprio talked Martin Scorsese into directing, and could hardly have made a better choice. Like all of Scorsese’s films, “The Aviator” every aspect is thoroughly realized—the photography, the sets, the music track. As it’s a biography, and wasn’t originated by Scorsese, it lacks some of his recurring themes, but it’s as brilliantly made as any of his films. It’s dramatic, moving, funny, fascinating, spectacular and also intimate.

There’s a brief scene in which Howard as a boy is lovingly bathed by his germophobic mother; she warns him that the world is full of germs, and that he must always be on his guard. Screenwriter John Logan is a bit facile here, reducing the obsessive-compulsive disorder of Hughes’ later years to an unconscious desire to please his mom. Psychological complexities as twisted as those that drove Hughes into self-imposed and wacky exile are not so easily explained.

And then it’s on to Hollywood, where Hughes is determined to make an epic of World War I aviation, “Hell’s Angels.” He briskly hires Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), loyal to Hughes until Howard died—and then was cut completely out of Hughes’ will. Hughes is a bundle of energy, full of demands, but intensely creative and imaginative. With the help of designer/engineer Glenn Odekirk (Matt Ross), another long-time employee, Hughes designs a monoplane for camera use—and sets the world air speed record, almost offhandedly.

Three years pass as Hughes obsessively works on “Hell’s Angels.” He realizes there has to be clouds in the background to tell how fast his biplanes are going, so he immediately hires UCLA meteorologist Professor Fitz (Ian Holm), another long-time employee, who can tell him when there will be clouds. Hughes waits for clouds, of course. When the film is essentially finished, he decides to shoot it again, in sound.

Meanwhile, he lands a seaplane at a movie location and makes a date with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), who’s there shooting a movie with Cary Grant and George Cukor. Hepburn and Hughes have a passionate affair, which we’re shown comes to an end when she falls in love with another man, presumably Spencer Tracy

It’s an imaginative look at the times and person of Howard Hughes. The production design by Dante Ferretti and wide-screen photography by Robert Richardson are intensely creative. Ferretti recreates Hughes’ favorite night spot, The Cocoanut Grove,” especially impressive when Hughes first arrives: we’re behind Di Caprio as lights spring up all over the crowded, giddy throng. The first third or so of the film is in desaturated color, at times approximating the look of two-strip Technicolor. Later, when Technicolor itself blossomed into the stunning hues of the late 30s, so does “The Aviator.”

There are some sets so spectacularly beautiful as to make you gasp in amazement; one is a restroom at the Cocoanut Grove, all in green, black and silver. Later, we see the office of Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), Hughes’ polite, urbane but tough-as-steel rival: Trippe is the head of Pan Am, and wants his company to be the only trans-Atlantic airline. His office is in the top of the Chrysler Building, and looks like something from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Hughes throughout astonishes us: his intense intelligence, his ability to make multi-million-dollar decisions in a flash, his energy and courage. And his weakening mind. He hasn’t been going with Hepburn very long before he hesitantly admits that he has feelings about things that may not really be there.

When World War II starts, Hughes envisions a colossal transport plane, not just for troops but for materiel as well. And as he’s working on the design of the Hercules, he’s also designing a brassiere for Jane Russell, his latest discovery to wear in “The Outlaw.” He also begins an affair with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), a tough, salty beauty who’s fond of Hughes but unwilling to be pushed around by him.

In all this maelstrom of activity, he begins exhibiting disturbing behavior. “Show me all the blueprints,” Hughes says—and then says it again, and again, and again; he struggles to stop, but cannot. He has occasional difficulties due to his fear of germs, as when he’s briefly trapped in a bathroom, fearful of touching the doorknob. (We see this, as Scorsese points out, from the point of view of the doorknob.)

He reverts to normal—or normal for Howard Hughes—and after the war, helps design his experimental XF11 reconnaissance plane. He insists on making the test flight himself, and spectacularly crashes in Beverly Hilles. This is a stunning achievement, technically: awesome, frightening, disturbing in a chaotic way. It’s another of those scenes that indicate that Scorsese could master ANY genre.

Hughes slowly recovers, but becomes reclusive, watching “The Outlaw” over and over, living alone in a dark room, detailing very specific instructions on how his food is to be prepared, beginning to save his urine in milk bottles. Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), largely in Trippe’s pocket, cannot get Howard to agree to withdraw his intention of turning TWA into an international carrier. So he begins a senate inquisition, and the movie reaches its emotional climax.

“The Aviator” is almost three hours long, and speeds by as if it were only 90 minutes. It seizes the viewer’s attention and commands it throughout. One of the most important features of the film is Leonardo Di Caprio’s deeply committed performance as Howard Hughes; this is the highlight of his career to date. He adopts Hughes’ somewhat high-pitched voice and Texas accent; during the film, his voice coarsens and deepens, becoming gravelly.

Hughes commanded instant loyalty; for all his strangeness, he was a figure of unquestionable authority, and that’s how Di Caprio plays him. We see his imagination and creativity, his occasional cold remoteness, his sexual drive, his lack of understanding of the people who matter most to him, but also his instant, accurate assessment of his opponents. Furthermore, almost all who really knew Hughes admit to his strangeness, but add that he was also a likeable person. Di Caprio doesn’t exaggerate anything in hopes of making his Hughes likeable; he and Scorsese present him as the man he was—and we like him anyway, just as Hughes’ real-life friends did. The movie makes no pretense of explaining Hughes, instead depicting him thoroughly and carefully.

It was courageous of Miramax and Warner Bros. to finance “The Aviator.” After all, most of the world has largely forgotten Howard Hughes, and Di Caprio’s boxoffice appeal is uncertain. But this immensely entertaining, deeply engrossing movie, a testament to the filmmaking prowess of Martin Scorsese, should restore Hughes to his wobbly pedestal, and ensure Di Caprio’s place as a major actor.

It has been given appropriately lavish treatment in this excellent, two-disc DVD set. Disc One includes the movie itself, with an optional commentary track by director Scorsese. He’s an ideal choice for such a chore; he talks a mile a minute and so includes a great deal more information than an ordinary person would. He’s so much in control of every aspect of filming that he’ll describe details you couldn’t possibly notice, and he’s also one of America’s pre-eminent, liveliest film buffs. If he weren’t a director, he could easily step directly into Leonard Maltin’s job with no need to brush up on anything.

The second disc has all the swell extras. There’s a deleted scene in which Hughes uncomfortably reveals that he accidentally killed someone. “A Life Without Limits: The Making of The Aviator” is a standard, unexceptional making-of documentary, done while the film was still in production. Much more interesting is “The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History,” completely described by its title. George J. Marrett and James B. Steele, both authors of books on Hughes, authoritatively comment on his importance in aviation history. Screenwriter John Logan points out that the Beverly Hills crash of Hughes’ XF-11 may be the precise point at which Hughes’ life began to turn in on itself.

A History Channel show, “Howard Hughes Tech,” is astonishingly thorough, showing how Hughes’ money and the companies he started have been instrumental in helicopters, space satellites, antenna-dish television and even the Moon landings. The most important legacy of Hughes may be the fully-funded research hospital on the East Coast; their backing is so complete that they don’t have to turn to any other sources to fund their important research.

There are two sections on obsessive-compulsive disorder, the disease—and that’s what it is—that so completely crippled Hughes as time went by. The first one is primarily focused on Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, an engaging expert on OCD, and Leonardo Di Caprio—who admits to having suffered from it himself. A couple of real OCD patients appear anonymously, one of whom advised Logan and Di Caprio on the film.

The other OCD presentation is a panel discussion held December 2, 2004, and featuring Schwartz and Di Caprio again, as well as Hughes’ ex-wife Terry Moore, Martin Scorsese and Dr. Peter Whybrow of UCLA.

There’s also a lively, funny two-man interview with Di Caprio and Alan Alda, who’s just as ingratiating and entertaining as himself as he was as Hawkeye Pierce. They talk about telephone poles. Among the interesting ideas that come up here is that since it is possible for OCD sufferers to control the disease through intense concentration, the immense productivity of Howard Hughes might have been the way he found to handle the difficult condition.

There is a section on the extensive visual effects for the movie, fascinating as visual effects supervisor Robert Legato demonstrates how some of the planes were constructed in the computer, but others were elaborate miniatures, including in the Beverly Hills Crash scenes. There’s a lot of information here partly because Legato talks almost as fast as Scorsese.

Production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Sandy Powell have chapters devoted to their work, as do Moray Rosskva and Kathryn Blondell, respectively the heads of the makeup and hairstyling divisions. The section devoted to the music is unexpectedly entertaining; Howard Shore is interesting enough, but Loudon Wainwright III, the distinctive singer who appears in the film (as do two of his singer children), is lively and funny, an unexpectedly fresh breeze near the end of this lavish DVD package.

Howard Hughes wasn’t just an important figure in movie and aviation history, he was one of the great icons of the twentieth century, one of the touchstones for the kind of superlative characters who turned up in pop fiction. Einstein and Tesla were the working models for the mad scientist, but the crazy rich inventor so often seen in all kinds of comedies—that was basically Howard Hughes. It’s surprising that no other major movie has been based on Hughes—“The Carpetbaggers” was suggested by his life story—but we can be grateful that it was Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Di Caprio who first took the plunge. This isn’t likely to be the last movie about Hughes, but it will long remain the best.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Surround 5.1
aspect ratio(s):
Widescreen (16X9 enhanced)
special features: First disc, feature and commentary track by Martin Scorsese; second disc Making “The Aviator,” The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History, a History Channel documentary, two sections on obsessive-compulsive disorder, an interview with Leonardo Di Caprio and Alan Alda, and sections on visual effects, production design, hair and makeup, costumes and music
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reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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