[box cover]

The Aviator (2004)

Warner Home Video

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale,
Alec Baldwin, and Alan Alda

Screenplay by John Logan

Directed by Martin Scorsese

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

I wasn't particularly interested in (Howard) Hughes when I sat down to read a script by John Logan called The Aviator, and I was surprised to discover after two or three pages that it was about him …

— Martin Scorsese, 2003

Ninety-Five Theses about Martin Scorsese


Thesis I: Martin Scorsese Should Never More Be Referred To Again As "Our Greatest Living Director"

Each new Martin Scorsese film is greeted with the emotional commitment and fevered anticipation of a religious ceremony. But he has been for so long dubbed our "greatest living director" that we tend to forget when the string of oddly disappointing films that counter that statement began. For some it is Casino; for others Kundun; for even more it is Cape Fear. Each of these films has its defenders, and indeed each has what Truffaut would call its "privileged moments." But if the spectator is looking for the rush, the concentrated energy of a Goodfellas, then yes, for these skeptics the 1990s and the 'Oughts have been a washout for Scorsese fans.

Scorsese admirers labor under the need for their god among directors to keep spilling forth masterpieces. Scorsese himself labors under the need to find engaging material. And in fact, one could argue that most great directors go through a terribly fallow period in their twilight years before issuing great, final, career-defining masterpieces in their dotage. Scorsese is, for many of us, still stuck in that twilight. The "decline" in Scorsese, from edgy crime dramas to finely honed bombastic Hollywood epics, may have occurred when he began drifting to new collaborators, specifically from photographers such as Michael Chapman and Michael Ballhaus to Robert Richardson, or from De Niro to DiCaprio.

Isn't it time we drop the suffix "Greatest Living Director" from his name and simply admit that Scorsese is yet just another greatly talented Hollywood director? Isn't it time that a protester nail to the wall the truth for all to see? That Scorsese has devolved from our Greatest Living Director (even John C. Reilly uses this sobriquet in one of The Aviator's DVD supplements) to just a director? Isn't it time to show that, though the Emperor may not be naked, he is garbed in only the fine linen everyone else wears?


Thesis II: Scorsese Would Have Fit Elegantly into the Studio System of Classic Hollywood

Martin Scorsese would have been a fit soldier marching to the orders of the old studio chiefs. Probably at Paramount (it had the best writers), but maybe also Warner. Though half of Scorsese's movies are "personal," the other half are what John Ford would have called a "job of work," done to pay the bills or as favors to friends. At the same time, Scorsese has hinted at a desire to do "one of everything": a thriller, a musical, a boxing movie, a western. Part of the attraction of the studio system was that a director like Allan Dwan (a Scorsese favorite) could average three films a year, in many different genres, which offers a great opportunity to hone craft. Scorsese, who now makes one movie every three years, has said in interviews that he thinks that he would have thrived under such conditions, despite the notorious interference from studio heads such as Darryl F. Zanuck.

Could such an individual talent such as Scorsese's survive the relative anonymity of the studio system? If so, he would be the epitome of what Andrew Sarris sought to celebrate in classical Hollywood — directors such as Budd Boetticher and Raoul Walsh, who took studio-assigned material and somehow twisted them to their own ends, leaving their solid, personal stamp on them. That is certainly what Scorsese has done in the post-studio era with non-Scorsese generated projects such as Alice… , Raging Bull, and Cape Fear.


Thesis III: At Root, The Aviator Is Just Another Biopic

That being said, isn't The Aviator (2004) a premier example of Scorsese doing studio hackwork? Allan Dwan-level merchandise at Cecil B. DeMille prices? Isn't The Aviator just another biopic of the brand Hollywood has been issuing with numbing regularity for the past five years? Isn't John Logan's script irritatingly formulaic of recent conventions of screen biography?

Let's look at the evidence.

After the title (in shield form like a studio logo) comes up, the film, in biopic fashion, starts off with a psychology-explaining prologue which shows the young nine-year-old Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., being bathed rather sensuously by his mother, who simultaneously coaches him in the concept of quarantine (his home state of Texas was rife with germ-based diseases in those days). This is in 1914 (the rest of the film covers Hughes's life from 1927 to 1947). The script shock-cuts to 12 years later with Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), now the heir to the profitable Hughes Manufacturing Company (which makes drill bits for the oil industry), in the middle of shooting the battle scene for Hell's Angels. In one of those typical biopic scenes, everything happens at once: Hughes is introduced as a dynamic, bull-headed young man trying to score two more cameras to fully capture his vision, and he hires Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) as his CEO (and who in real life went on to write a memoir of working with Hughes). Next, Hughes is shown as an outsider in Hollywood, at the Coconut Grove, dressed inappropriately and laughed at by Louis B. Mayer, from whom he tries to borrow some cameras, but still able to sway a cigarette girl to go to bed with him, to the jealous amazement of his ineffectual publicity man. Next Hughes essentially redesigns an airplane (creating a mono-winged speed plane) and solves a major problem with aviation photography (the lack of a motionless background element masks the speed with which the planes in Hell's Angels are really moving). But just as he finishes shooting his epic, sound comes in (the film suggests that Hughes re-shot all of Hell's Angels, but in fact he re-shot only the dialogue sequences, taking the opportunity to rethink the plot, which was itself "borrowed" from Wings, and replaced Greta Nissen with Jean Harlow). Hell's Angels opens, and Scorsese's The Aviator, in its shorthand, suggests that the $3.8 million epic earned back all its investment, which entailed Hughes mortgaging his business.

In the film's next phase, for unexplained reasons Hughes woos Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). Meanwhile, he also buys TWA and tests the H-1 jet plane. Like almost every other aircraft he pilots, Hughes crashes the prototype, but the worst landing comes with the deflating collapse of his mature relationship with Hepburn, whose snooty family and its screwball living arrangements offend and baffle the plainspoken entrepreneur (Hepburn's family is still close to her ex-husband). The romance ends, but Hughes has other projects to oversee: a massive wartime transport plane called the Hercules (made of wood), the titillating western The Outlaw, and buying a fleet of cross-country airliners.

After a dalliance with Faith Domergue and the beginning of a "street fight" with Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) of Pan American Airlines, whose proxy, senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) does most of the swinging, and after quietly saving Hepburn and the married Spencer Tracy from a press scandal, Hughes teams up with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). As Hughes's obsessive-compulsive disorder increases, he reaches a crisis point when he crashes his experimental plane, the XF-11, into Beverly Hills in a near-fatal accident. Surviving that, but losing Ava thanks to her free-spirited ways and his paranoid spying, Hughes is finally pushed over the brink when his files are subpoenaed and he is called before Brewster's Senate committee to answer charges of war profiteering. He descends into madness, living in a screening room for weeks at a time and eluding the exhortations of Hepburn and a threatening Trippe. But finally he does emerge, and with a little cosmetic aid from Gardner, faces and beats Brewster (and by extension Trippe) on the public stage. His final triumph is to fly the Hercules, now nicknamed the "Spruce Goose" by the press, some 70 feet over the Long Beach Harbor. But his success is short lived. Once he has landed, Dietrich and others note that Hughes once again teeters on the edge of madness.

This is pretty biopicky. The Aviator is all sweep and summary and dramatic "meaningful" highlight moments and short scenes. But it's not bad. It's certainly not as execrable as the TV movie version of Hughes's life with Tommy Lee Jones. Scorsese and Logan at least allow the viewer to feel that Hughes is accessible; Jones's Hughes was all exterior and indication and summary; DiCaprio, in a marvelous actorial turn, makes Hughes's illness tangible, meaningful, moving. DiCaprio also ages 20 years convincingly and yet keeps the "center" of Hughes consistent.


Thesis IV. Scorsese Should Never More Make a Film on a Topic or Subject with Which He Is Not Passionately Smitten

It's cruel to characterize Martin Scorsese's recent output as Oscar-whoring epics, and realistically even he must know that he richly deserves an Oscar. Surely, The Aviator was the film that should have won Scorsese his long-coveted statuette. This film has just what Oscar likes: It's a biopic, it has glamour, it focuses on a disabled person, it's rife with British actresses, and so forth. One comforts oneself with the fact that Scorsese is in the able company of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, King Vidor, and Robert Altman (directors also snubbed by the Academy), but really, shouldn't making a string of masterpieces be enough for anybody?

Might The Aviator have been "better" if it were The Filmmaker, i.e., if it had focused on Hughes's Hollywood career — the films, the starlets, the studio juggling, the red-baiting, the scandal mags — perhaps from a script by James Ellroy? The aviation stuff makes for great special-effects scenes (the two crashes in the film are worthy of Flight of the Phoenix, Alive, and Cliffhanger), but put all that on the back burner and let us revel in the lives of the stars. After all, this is the first Scorsese movie by this great movie-lover that is set even tangentially in the world of moviemaking. He could have gone wild.


Thesis V: Wait, Martin Scorsese Is Our Greatest Living Director — But He Needs Great Collaborators

Sure, there may be a passionless core to The Aviator, but a "bad" Scorsese movie is better than a "great" movie from, say, Joel Schumacher (our homegrown Franco Zeffirelli). The Aviator is clear, concise, makes sense, has bravura sequences, is excellently acted by a good cast that works well together, and takes 20 years of a man's life and of American history and summarizes it accurately.

The closet cinematic resemblance The Aviator has in Scorsese's career is to Raging Bull. Both tell the lives of highly public men. Both elaborately recreate lush eras. And both were projects initiated by their lead actors. As reaffirmed on the recent Raging Bull DVD, Scorsese needed some persuading to take on a project whose passionate advocate was Robert De Niro (it wasn't until Scorsese saw it as a tale of two brothers that he got interested). Once involved in a project, Scorsese is intrigued by the technical challenges (the boxing matches in Raging Bull), and here we feel that Scorsese is really enjoying the recreation of the Coconut Grove over three different decades, an invocation of the nightclub that figures at the beginning and the end of New York, New York.

But Howard Hughes really is a fascinating, if also irritating and scary, figure. The man's influence on society, art, commerce, and aviation is much more expansive that most people assume. As a rebel against censorship, he predated Otto Preminger. The satellites that send us television have their technological roots in Hughes's work. The only question is, was Hughes a human being?

Did Hughes ever laugh? Tell a joke? Was he approachable? Or was he insane from day one? When did the taciturn Gary Cooperish flyboy-playboy become such a reclusive person? Or was he always thus? Tommy Lee Jones's portrayal of Hughes is even colder and more distanced, and one of the triumphs of DiCaprio's turn is that he makes Hughes understandable without necessarily being likable.

In fact, there is much more to Hughes than found here, i.e., the subsequent years 1948 to 1976, in which Hughes buys RKO, gets involved in the Red Scare, marries Jean Peters, moves to Las Vegas, has ties to the Mob and to Watergate, is the object of a hoax, then dies, appropriately, in flight, leaving a contested will. The Aviator leaves out (probably because biographers Donald Barlett and James Steel do so in their book Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness on which the movie is essentially based) any reference to Hughes's alleged bisexuality. Biographer Charles Higham (who claims the movie is based on his book, Howard Hughes: The Secret Life) assigns several male lovers to Hughes from Randolph Scott, Cary Grant, and Tyrone Power to Richard Cromwell and Russell Gleason, and even has him trolling the dungeons of Los Angeles's gay S&M underground. One recent exposé even drags Hughes into the Black Dahlia murder.


Thesis VI: Since He Really Is Our Greatest Living Director, The Supplements on the DVDs of Our Greatest Living Director's Films Should Be as Great as the Film Itself

Good audio commentary tracks always address that one big thing we want to know — cruxes in the interpretation of the film or mysteries about its creation. With The Aviator, the crux would be why Scorsese wanted to make the film in the first place. Well, the director doesn't really address that, but he does sound quietly enthusiastic about the project in general. However, the packaging is misleading. The audio track is one of those Criterion-style edited commentaries to which Scorsese is prone, and he is accompanied by the editor and Aviator Oscar-winner Thelma Schoonmaker and producer Michael Mann, who was initially slated as director back when DiCaprio was first trying to get the film made. Nonetheless, the director has the floor the most.

Scorsese is not unenthusiastic about Hughes. In one of the best stories on the track, Scorsese tells of showing a 16mm print of the film to other Movie-Brat-New-Hollywood directors such as Spielberg, De Palma, and Milius. During reel changes they talked about the film excitedly, and after the screening, Scorsese says, Milius got up and made a speech about how "this is the kind of movie we should be making." In just a few short sentences, Scorsese evokes a whole world of intensely competitive filmmakers still able to love cinema (maybe he should make a movie about that some day), basically the parts left out of Peter Biskind's book on '70s cinema. (The anecdote occurs around time code 25:18.)

It's clear that Scorsese is more interested in Hughes the filmmaker rather than Hughes the aviator; and not even that much more. Scorsese doesn't care much for The Outlaw. Scorsese also notes that though there had been discussions about incorporating images or citations to the post-1960 reclusive Vegas hotelier Hughes, he decided against that for a few reasons, one being that The Aviator already alludes to that phase of Hughes's life in the central screening room sequence, and second that Scorsese found that his later life lacked a certain drama. So don't expect a sequel 20 years from now with an older Leo playing an older Hughes (unless it's directed by Soderbergh). There will be no The Hermit.

Also, by the way, part of the commentary track is cannibalized from the OCD panel featurette, discussed below. Meanwhile the rest of the supplements prove to be for the most part pretty good:

Warner Home Video offers a beautiful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. (Oh, and PS: The other 89 Theses will come with reviews of Scorsese's future films.)

D.K. Holm

Disc One

Disc Two

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