The Aviator is Martin Scorsese's contribution to what appears to be the year of the biopic (Alexander, Ray, Kinsey, Finding Neverland, et al), as the director presents a three-hour look at the life and times of Howard Hughes. Although very much like Hughes himself--elegant, eclectic, eccentric--the film takes a long time to make its point, if there is one, and in the end, its still a mystery.
The young and idealistic Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is driven by two forces in his life: airplanes and Hollywood. The Aviator begins in the 1920s, as Hughes obsessively works on his silent debut film Hell's Angels, which he ends up scraping completely to remake as a talkie, thus making it the most expensive film of its time. While embarking on doomed affairs with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), Hughes also builds a plane that makes him the fastest man in the world in 1935. The millionaire even engineers a new bra to make the most out of Jane Russell's cleavage for his next film The Outlaw, while running TWA and building planes for the government during WWII. Yet, the mental illness that would consume Hughes later in life begins to rear its ugly head after he breaks up with Hepburn. As does his dogfights with Pan Am's Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), who sics his in-pocket politician, Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), on Hughes--which, coming after the flyboy crashes his experimental spy plane, leaves him with only a couple of good fights left in him. Hughes eventually stands up to Brewster's senate investigation, and then manages to finish and ceremonially fly the Spruce Goose. But soon he makes his final descent into undiagnosed and untreated madness.
The Aviator provides a bevy of tour de force performances. As the leading man, DiCaprio gives us an Oscar-worthy turn as Hughes, vacillating easily between the playboy, the industrialist, the aviator, and finally, the madman. In seducing a cigarette girl, the suave DiCaprio says one of the best lines in the film: ''I want to find out what gives you pleasure. Would you give me that job?,'' which pretty much sums up Hughes' modus operandi. The scenes between DiCaprio and Blanchett as the spirited Hughes and Hepburn are also fun and lively, especially in their first meeting on a golf course, in which Hepburn talks a blue streak while Hughes quietly admires her. Blanchett does an amazing job emulating the acting legend without doing a strict imitation. The worst performance in the film could be Blanchett's nose, which looks nothing like Hepburn's, but that's about it. The exquisite Beckinsale also does a marvelous job as Ava Gardner, who had a brief and tumultuous affair with Hughes, but ended up more his confidant than anything else. In supporting roles, Alec Baldwin seems to be settling in nicely as one of Hollywood's favorite heavies, playing Trippe's malevolence with a twinkle in his eye. As does Alan Alda who again delivers admirably as the elder statesman of ''mean.''
Marty, Marty, Marty. Why can't you make a nice two-hour film like everybody else? It's probably not fair to harp on the film's length, but it isn't just long, it feels long. Rather than being a cohesive whole, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan deliver a montage of expertly constructed scenes and sequences, without giving us a true understanding of who Howard Hughes really was. Perhaps Howard Hughes is just too much of a character for one film. The closest we come to getting inside Hughes' mind is during the breath-taking crash of the FX-11 into a Beverly Hills residential area, which is undeniably one of the best crash scenes ever filmed. Scorsese is obviously a master filmmaker, but some of his old tricks aren't working here. The patchwork quality of the film is underscored by the director's varying use of different period styles--from a washed out look of a '40s home movie to a vivid contemporary look. Used to great effect in his films such as Raging Bull and Goodfellas, now it seems out of place in The Aviator. It's true Scorsese will more than likely get another shot at Oscar gold for The Aviator, but if he wins it will definitely be for his vastly superior previous work.
Bolstered by Oscar-caliber performances, The Aviator soars in many ways, giving us some wonderful vistas as well as distressing moments. But ultimately, after three hours, the film as a whole sputters and crash lands.