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Overall Rating

Awesome: 34.91%
Worth A Look35.5%
Average: 15.38%
Pretty Bad: 6.51%
Total Crap: 7.69%

12 reviews, 97 user ratings

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Aviator, The (2004)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A biopic just as grand, compelling and troubling as Hughes himself."
5 stars

On the one hand, the life and times of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes are the stuff that movies were made to show-he was a man whose fame and fortune was predicated on actually doing things-such as making movies and designing airplanes-as opposed to simply making a bunch of smart investments and his adventures found him rubbing shoulders (and butting heads) with the leaders of the entertainment, transportation and political industries. On the other hand, there are also problems as well; much of his initial wealth was inherited (Hollywood tends to prefer a rags-to-riches hero as opposed to a born rich-got richer type) and, as a result of the obsessive fear of germs that plagued him throughout his life, he essentially spent the last several decades of his life (and therefore the screenplay) holed up in a hotel room urinating into milk bottles while repeatedly re-watching “Ice Station Zebra”, which, trust me, isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. To make a film worthy of his extraordinary life, a filmmaker would have to figure out a way of telling the story that could maintain a balance between those two aspects without tipping too far in either direction. With “The Aviator”, Martin Scorsese, America’s finest living filmmaker, has done just that and the result is a wonder-a biopic just as grand, compelling and troubling as Hughes himself.

One of the key decisions made by Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan was to scale back the narrative to concentrate largely on the two decades between 1927-1947, the period where most of his greatest accomplishments were achieved, while adding in suggestions of the troubles that would begin to plague him later on. Although some purists may howl that such an approach hardly gives the full scope of his life (the same complaints that also plagued “Ali”), it plays beautifully on-screen. While many people going to see the film probably remember the reclusive-weirdo Hughes, they may not be as familiar with his other aspects; this approach allows them to see him in his prime while allowing them to fill in the blanks for themselves of where his compulsions would eventually take him.

The best sequences in “The Aviator” are the ones dealing with Hughes adventures in Hollywood, primarily his four-year-long battle to fund and film his personally-financed and directed WW I epic “Hell’s Angels”, a project that nearly all in the industry predicted was doomed to failure because of its outrageous cost (it was the most expensive film ever made at that point) and the behind-the-scenes extravagances that went into its making. To shoot the elaborate dogfight sequences, for example, we learn that he assembled on of the largest air-forces to be on hand, only to have to ground them at immense cost until the weather was suitable for filming, and that a key battle sequence required, in his estimation, 26 different cameras to capture everything (“You don’t think you can get it with 24 cameras?” an incredulous Louis B. Mayer asks when Hughes begs for the loan of two more cameras.). Not only that, talking pictures made their debut during the many months of editing and he made the decision to reshoot the majority of the film to take advantage of sound.

Coming off of his own much-gossiped-about, wildly expensive epic-sized film (“Gangs of New York”), Scorsese clearly knows exactly the mindset that Hughes must have had at the time-the absolute determination to get it right at all cost-otherwise, there is no point in doing it in the first place-and that knowledge infuses every frame. We thrill when he grabs a camera and goes up in a plane himself to shoot footage, we get as excited as he does when he finally figures out why that footage doesn’t look as spectacular as it should (with no clouds in the background to provide a sense of relative motion, there is no way to see just how dizzyingly dangerous the flying scenes-which took the lives of a couple of the pilots-really are) and we cheer when the film finally premieres and becomes an overwhelming success-and introduces a brand-new star in sex-bomb Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani, in a role smaller than the magazine covers might lead you to believe) to boot.

This segment of the film, roughly the first 45 minutes, is so exhilarating to watch that when Scorsese shifts the focus to Hughes’s aerodynamic achievements-both in personally designing and testing (and occasionally crashing) experimental aircraft (including the legendary wooden behemoth that would be known as the “Spruce Goose”) and in his struggles against the politically connected Pan-Am airline, whose owner (Alec Baldwin) has a key senator (Alan Alda) in his pocket, to make a success of his TWA airlines-there is a danger at times that the balance of the film has been thrown off-kilter; it is clearly obvious to anyone that Scorsese is far more vested in the history of the cinema than he is in the history of airplanes. While these scenes never quite have the impact of the Hollywood elements, they are still fascinating to watch as Hughes, despite the worsening of his phobias-much to the glee of his rivals (at one point, one consciously leaves a fingerprint on a wine glass before offering it to Hughes at a business lunch to see his reaction)-triumphing in his other dream. There is even a parallel sense of triumph to the “Hell’s Angels” premiere in the sequence in which the Spruce Goose finally takes off-another overbudget mammoth overcoming all obstacles in order to achieve takeoff.

The other major surprise of “The Aviator” is how it overcomes one of the chief obstacles of most biopics-the potentially off-putting sight of seeing famous people attempting to portray equally famous people, especially ones as well-known as Hughes, Harlow, Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Errol Flynn (Jude Law). DiCaprio may not seem at first like the most logical person to play Hughes-he has never really demonstrated the kind of outsized personality that Hughes must have had to inspire such strong emotions in so many people-but he pulls it off in what is easily his most impressive performance since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. He has every aspect of Hughes-both the brash public persona and the tormented private one-down cold in such a way so that viewers can still accept and sympathize with him even in his darkest moments.

As Katherine Hepburn, Blanchett turns in a wildly flamboyant performance that is likely to divide viewers; while her vocal impression is sometimes disconcerting (it sounds at times as if Hepburn is doing an impression of herself), she gives enough of a fierce funny and sexy edge to Hepburn that it overcomes the voice. Stefani and Law make only token appearances but they make brief, vivid impressions (even though Stefani’s Harlow is noticeably less endowed than the real-life version, not a minor oversight when you are dealing with one of the most significant sex symbols of all time). The only one who doesn’t quite come off is Beckinsale, whose Ava Gardner is noticeably bland-instead of one of the great spitfires of all time, her Gardner is the kind of dame that even Frank Sinatra, Jr. could have easily handled.

Actually, the worst thing that someone could say about “The Aviator” is that, for all of its achievements, it isn’t quite top-level Scorsese-certainly not on the same level as “Taxi Driver” or “Raging Bull” or “Goodfellas”. Some critics have even seized on the fact that it isn’t as bloody or brooding as those titles-to the point where it even has a PG-13 rating-as an indication that he has somehow decided to play it safe in the wake of the controversial “Gangs of New York” in order to score a needed box-office hit-complete with a rousing courtroom climax in which the hero triumphs over adversity. While I admit that a little more darkness here and there might not have been a bad idea-there are scenes that cry out for the Hughes that Francis Coppola briefly and memorably depicted in “Tucker”-to dismiss this film and Scorsese’s work in such a cavalier way overlooks many of the achievements that he does pull off.

Despite running nearly three hours, the film moves like a bullet with hardly a wasted moment. It finds the right balance between outsized spectacle (including a harrowing plane crash in a Beverly Hills suburb that may be the most astonishing action set-piece of Scorsese’s entire career) and the smaller, character-driven moments. It condenses a lot of history in a way that imparts an enormous amount of information in a short period of time without dumbing things down. And those asking for more darkness should take another look at the final scene of the film, in which Hughes finds his greatest triumph (the flight of the Spruce Goose) invaded by a public display of his affliction, leading him to be hidden away by his handlers before it can be discovered; the shot of him being led away by a series of blank-faced, white-gloved men straight out of “Carnival of Souls” to parts unknown for what will essentially be the rest of his life, is perhaps the single most terrifying image he has ever committed to film.

“The Aviator” is one of the best biopics to emerge from Hollywood, where they have become a cottage industry, in many years. Like its subject, it isn’t afraid to take chances or make grand gestures in order to capture the imagination. At the same time, it is a strangely intimate look at a man and the single-minded drives that both him into the stratosphere and then cruelly pulled him back to Earth. The result is a great work from a great filmmaker that takes a fascinating historical subject and actually does him justice.

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originally posted: 12/25/04 08:54:43
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User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell long but really good 4 stars
1/11/10 Eric Leo did a good job, great movie if you bother to watch 4 stars
12/24/08 Brap YES 5 stars
3/31/07 David Pollastrini All the women in this film are hot! 3 stars
3/07/07 Frank Rountree Good movie, good history lesson! I liked it. 4 stars
2/19/07 Nick Maday I was drawn in and spellbound from the very beginning. 4 stars
1/04/07 Alice I do not understand the ratings.Nothing special, boring by times. 3 stars
11/25/06 Gwen Stefani? Not a bad film, but I watched it in fast-forward so not too long... 3 stars
10/01/06 Charles Tatum Excellent film, DiCaprio finally wins my grudging respect 5 stars
8/05/06 Agent Sands Another riveting Scorsese biopic. Fantastic in all departments. 5 stars
5/27/06 Steve Newman Great film - 30 mins to long - now going to read how true it all was!! 4 stars
3/18/06 MP Bartley Great acting throughout, brilliantly rendered period detail - a fine departure for Scorsese 4 stars
3/12/06 daveyt enjoyable... 4 stars
3/03/06 Tanya Very good 5 stars
1/08/06 Gerry Dunne good story let down by appalling flying scenes 3 stars
12/28/05 John Dog Superb! 5 stars
11/16/05 Quigley Dicaprio's acting is suberb, but it was too long, and I didn't want to see leo naked. ever. 4 stars
11/05/05 mike winger i was exspecting too see kate beckinsale tits 1 stars
10/12/05 Jennifer Free The movie drags on and on. I actually got bored and didn't finish after an hour and a half 2 stars
9/01/05 herkos akhaion Pointless, looks good, but story is poorly told 2 stars
8/30/05 LS Galvin Amazingly acted, beautifully directed, satisfying biopic! 5 stars
8/28/05 D Buckley Leo should have won best actor 4 stars
8/22/05 ES Cate's roll is wasted here, she should have saved it for a hepburn bio-movie, film stinks 2 stars
8/17/05 shadi The Aviator is a great movie! it`s greater than life & DiCaprio is amazing in it! 5 stars
8/13/05 lozita it rocks! 5 stars
8/13/05 Snicklets Outstanding! Held me captive from beginning to end. Leo DiCaprio shines; Cate wonderful. 5 stars
8/13/05 Dr. Video Excellent acting esp by DiCaprio. 5 stars
7/31/05 RK DiCaprio and Blanchett are excellent 4 stars
7/30/05 Dr. Zoidberg Sugarcoated bullshit; watch Marty sell his balls to the PG-13 crowd! 1 stars
7/27/05 Malaka The film was awesome, it's got everything a movie should be, Great 5 stars
7/26/05 Kankasaur Couldn't ask for more excitement and obsession with detail from Hughes himself 5 stars
7/05/05 Ry Great Movie of great man. It's based on a true story, not a made up script you morons. 5 stars
7/04/05 mariann Dull and boring....We turned it off after 30 minutes. 1 stars
6/23/05 Naka Stunning, intelligent, surprisingly good preformance by DiCaprio. I was enthralled. 5 stars
6/15/05 JFK bad music, boring script, average actings, long movie. Not a best film 3 stars
6/13/05 Agent Sands Long live Scorsese. 5 stars
6/07/05 Anthony G Good 4 stars
6/06/05 R.W. Welch Mostly successful, tho the main characters in this opus are impossible to re-create. 4 stars
6/04/05 Denise Gannon i'm sorry but Leo can't act! he's a FACE. very unbelievable acting by most of cast, too. 1 stars
6/04/05 rohit adhikari it is one of the most beautiful movies i have ever seen . it is a must watch 5 stars
6/01/05 Monday Morning Couldn't decide what kind of film it wanted to be, except "long". VERY disappointing. 3 stars
5/28/05 Saab Rocks Borring and long. There's only three minutes of action, and the movie is three hours long! 2 stars
5/26/05 Jake Fasinating and Entertaining 5 stars
5/02/05 dwarzel Academy awards for doing impressions? 4 stars
4/26/05 hp feel good film - got to watch for martin scorsese and leanardo 4 stars
4/16/05 malcolm pleasantly surprised by dicaprio's performance, otherwise, just not that interesting 3 stars
4/11/05 Bing good but too long 3 stars
4/08/05 Lina Correa Very intense film, great acting by DiCaprio 4 stars
3/31/05 Madeira Pure genius. It could kick Million Dollar Baby's ass any day. 5 stars
3/26/05 Denise great 4 stars
3/24/05 Michael Lloyd Scorsese's finest work since Goodfellas 5 stars
3/24/05 dana Gordon A must see on the big screen 4 stars
3/19/05 Green Grenlim has some exciting moments, but a little overlong 4 stars
3/06/05 Bueller A depressing visual feast. 4 stars
3/06/05 Josh Scorses indulges Leo's need for a "sympathetic" character. Overwrought. 3 stars
3/03/05 enid leo is boring, the film focuses exclusively on him, thus the film is boring. 1 stars
3/02/05 David Tsung pretty boring - not martin's best 3 stars
3/02/05 Pickles Leo is a crap actor, you're not watch hughes youre just watching Leo with an accent, boring 1 stars
2/25/05 Phyllis Kunz Fuckinubelieveable that Alec did not win the nomination for best supporting actor. Fuck! 5 stars
2/20/05 lj worth it for cate blanchett alone--she is marvelous as hepburn 4 stars
2/19/05 Captain Craig Terriffic from start to finish. Leaves one wanting more! 5 stars
2/18/05 susee scorsese, inthe way i never pickin 2 stars
2/18/05 Elza Hudson A heap of junk - very boring. 1 stars
2/17/05 Taylor Fladgate Full of depth and great acting. 4 stars
2/14/05 ELI gonna win best pic. 5 stars
2/14/05 Jeanine Price OK 4 stars
2/13/05 dbx Most boring movie I've ever seen. Leo: not an interesting actor, should have had JohnnyDepp 1 stars
2/12/05 Sylvia Belle interesting biography 5 stars
2/04/05 Mirella Rodriguez Fantastic! The acting is right on. 5 stars
2/04/05 Barbara Long A decent movie, Leo is cool. 4 stars
2/04/05 Agent Sands Scorsese's latest opus is impressive, though not up to par with "Bull," "Fellas," or "Dead. 5 stars
2/03/05 Steve Michaud I'll take "lesser" Scorsese over most of the directors out there any day 4 stars
2/01/05 Danita Berg Leo's best. This movie is NOT Titanic. Thank God. 4 stars
2/01/05 Elena this was incredible. i am in awe. 5 stars
1/29/05 Richard Brandt One is impressed by all Hughes accomplished despite an absolutely debilitating disorder 4 stars
1/29/05 Red Sox Still Suck Leo, Marty & Blanchett deserve Oscars for this great movie 5 stars
1/25/05 bob this movie fucking sucked 1 stars
1/24/05 Janet Pokrinchak Screenplay lacks depth and focus. Just never quite gets there & drags in some places. 3 stars
1/23/05 fred flintstone not again its too painful! 1 stars
1/22/05 Rob McKeown I no longer think of him as de-crap-io, worth a look 4 stars
1/21/05 Uncle Phucker Scorsese's hardcoreness is gone but his brilliant filmmaking is not. Acting was well done. 4 stars
1/15/05 Devin Knox worst movie of the year by far 1 stars
1/11/05 Stacey Peachfuzz Some awesome sequences but rather forgettable as a whole. 3 stars
1/11/05 Obi Wan Leo's best Movie!! Great Movie....didn't seem as long 5 stars
1/10/05 Mel Stark Fantastic. A film truely not to be missed 5 stars
1/09/05 Patti m usually prefer art house films but this movie is exceptional! 5 stars
1/08/05 Gizmo It was enjoyable but I honestly expected more. Blanchett was pretty great, though. 3 stars
1/03/05 Movie Lover so long! 3 stars
1/02/05 Nisha the best performance by Mr. Leo Dicaprio 5 stars
12/31/04 ajay it was pleasent... 4 stars
12/31/04 bobbi good, but only covered a few of his accomplishments 4 stars
12/28/04 Obi Wan WOW, WOW,WOW!! I was truly amazed...I'm at a lost for words how great this movie was! 5 stars
12/24/04 Hugh Janus Leo, Marty & Blanchett deserve Oscars for this great movie 5 stars
12/24/04 Raymond Shaw highly enjoyable cinema. DiCaprio is tremendous! Miss Blanchett runs the gamut of emotions! 5 stars
12/17/04 Ray Pretty good 5 stars
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  14-Dec-2004 (PG-13)
  DVD: 24-May-2005

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