Martin Scorsese is a director of many talents. He is best known for the crime films set in the New York of his youth, but he has tackled other themes: a harrowing medical drama in Bringing Out the Dead, a sports drama in Raging Bull, a psychological thriller in Shutter Island, and, of all things, a children’s adventure in Hugo (review here).
This review discusses another non-stereotypical Scorsese venture: his biopic of inventor Howard Hughes, entitled The Aviator.
The Aviator may not be an easy watch. It borders on three hours of runtime. As such, it is something of a marathon through the life of Hughes, a man who very much deserved a biopic. (See The Aviator: The Life and Legend of Howard Hughes) He was an eccentric and troubled genius, one who was all too prone to self-destruction. He was a movie pioneer and an aviation pioneer, and the film shrinks on neither aspect of him.
The film begins with Hughes’ attempt to film a World War I epic, Hell’s Angels, in particular a dogfight scene between British and German planes. It is a very clever scene to start with; it is Hughes at his most creative, trying to wow the world with something theretofore only dreamed of. He shows an understanding of the new and innovative that most lack. This is most obvious in his hunt for a specific weather phenomenon. The whole sequence is both thrilling and a perfect way of showing you what sort of a man Hughes is.
Hughes is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, in his second of several collaborations with Scorsese. DiCaprio shines as the eccentric genius. There is a nuance to his character, with both great generosity and great paranoia, and a healthy dollop of cruelty to boot. Hughes is a man who both loves and hates his creations, and loves and hates the women he involves himself with. This is at its most prominent with a famous scene set in a movie theater, where Hughes is at his absolute lowest point in the film.
There is a lavishness that makes the film a dieselpunkian feast. It is Golden Age Hollywood in all its glitz and glamor, with elegant costumes and cars and planes. (Especially the planes!) Even the buildings shine, for many are mansions.
The Aviator is a film about ambition and its discontents. Hughes runs into a number of obstacles, physical and social, that end up kicking him to the ground. One is a fiery engineering failure that leads to a thrilling scene. Other times, he runs afoul of the government.
It is arguably one of Scorsese’s most ambitious films: a sprawling bio-epic about a man who was larger than life.