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Michelle Thomas

Published December 26th, 2004 | by Michelle Thomas

The Aviator Review

Classification: 12A Director: Martin Scorses Rating: 4.5/5

I’d heard the name Howard Hughes and knew he was famous for doing, well, stuff, but wasn’t really sure what exactly. But a new Martin Scorsese film is always worth watching, even when its Gangs of New York; despite his misstep into teenage heart-throbdom with Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio is an actor of some skill and talent, backed by an all-star supporting cast, so it was with pleased anticipation that I took my seat in the cinema.

We open on the young Howard Hughes being bathed by his mother, who is obsessed with contagion and cleanliness in a Houston devastated by cholera and typhoid. We then flash forward to Hollywood, where Hughes (DiCaprio), barely out of his teens, has taken his inherited wealth and decided to make a movie. And not just any movie, but a World War One epic like no other. Mocked by the established moguls, and plunging way over budget, Hell’s Angels is nonetheless a roaring success, and Hughes is a celebrity.

Hughes founds his own aircraft company, shatters speed records, flies round the world, and becomes the most famous American flyer since Charles Lindberg – a mythic, larger than life figure. He meets and falls in love with Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett), but their relationship is problematic – though things are fine in private, her ailing career and sophisticated, old money Yankee family cause strain; when she leaves him for Spencer Tracy, he is devastated, and the cracks in his psychological make-up start to show.

With the start of the Second World War, Hughes becomes involved in the war effort, buying TWA, developing a spy plane, and planning to build the largest plane in the world, The Hercules. His acquisition of TWA brings in him into direct conflict with Pan American’s head, Juan Trippe (Baldwin) who has his own vision of the jet age, and the government connections to back it up.

The Aviator is a really good, old-fashioned epic – the kind of film they don’t make any more, about the kind of person who would struggle to exist in our politically correct, litigious, bean-counting world. Hughes was a maverick, running his businesses in the kind of personal, passionate way that would be difficult if not impossible in today’s business climate. The film paints a picture of a genius – charming, bloody smart, decisive, cool – whose personal obsessions and phobias ultimately destroyed him. Scorsese chooses not to focus on Hughes’ descent into madness, but tells the story of the handsome young Hughes, in love with risk and technology, slightly unhinged.

The film reflects this in its look, which is exquisite. It reflects the cinematic looks of the three decades in which the story takes place, and is a fantastic recreation of the golden ages of Hollywood and aviation, all glamorous night clubs, fantastic clothes, beautiful buildings and sleek aeroplanes inspired by Art Deco. There’s a sense of total immersion in the period, and of just how exciting and elegant a time this was. The actors blend into this world perfectly. DiCaprio is compelling as Hughes, appearing in almost every scene, retaining our sympathy even when pissing into milk bottles in his screening room, but is acted off the screen by Cate Banchett. She doesn’t actually look like Kate Hepburn, but her mannerisms and vocal performance are so spot on that I forgot that I wasn’t watching the real woman. They are ably supported by a cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Jude Law, Ian Holm and Kate Beckinsale.

The Aviator is perfect for those dull January afternoons when there’s nothing on tv and you’re sick of the sales. Empty your bladder, grab some popcorn, and sink into it.


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