Aviator, The (2004)

Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 04/06/05 15:42:29

"Hell's Angel"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Howard Hughes was in many ways similar to Charles Foster Kane, the enigmatic and imposing central character of Orson Welles’s legendary masterpiece ‘Citizen Kane’. The fact that Kane was modelled on media-mogul William Randolph Hearst is not relevant to this review. Like Kane, Howard inherited a large sum of money and found himself at a very young age, equally the richest and the loneliest man in the world. Both were visionaries who always dreamt big. Hughes even had a fascination for large breasts! Both set out after pursuits that seemed stupid and reckless to everybody but themselves. And they both always succeeded. Both amassed large fortunes and attracted media attention. And sadly, both of them didn’t know when to stop! While Kane ended up as a lonely millionaire, Hughes suffered from a more terrifying descent into madness.

In Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Aviator’, we are not made privy to Howard Hughes’s disturbing later life. In that sense it is a rather shallow biopic. But when viewed as a movie, it is as complete as complete can get. ‘The Aviator’ doesn’t try to delve into the life of its lead character but rather concentrates on one chapter in his life, a ploy employed by the recent ‘Finding Neverland’. But unlike ‘Finding Neverland’, ‘The Aviator’ doesn’t take cinematic liberty and tamper with the facts. John Logan’s screenplay introduces us to a young Howard Hughes(Leonardo DiCaprio) working on his ambitious ‘Hell’s Angels’ which took over three years and three million dollars to make. A rank outsider, he is ridiculed by the reigning tycoons for using twenty-six cameras to perfect a shot. Hughes completes the film, then reworks it with sound, before eventually releasing it to universal acclaim. Hughes goes on a roller-coaster of popularity, popping flash bulbs, acquisition deals with TWA and talked about high-profile romances with famous leading ladies. The most significant of his dalliances is with Katharine Hepburn(Cate Blanchett). Not only do we sense a real admiration and possible love between the two, but this interlude is also the most enjoyable portion of the movie. Hughes’s visit to Hepburn’s family estate in Connecticut establishes as the best scene overall. The Hepburn-Hughes relationship doesn’t work probably because they were too similar to each other, both equally headstrong individuals.

Concomitantly, obsessive compulsive disorder(OCD) begins to cast its shadow on Hughes. We witness this rich man rendered helpless in a public washroom as he awaits someone to enter so that he can leave without having to touch the doorknob which he fears is not germ-free! His bouts worsen as he begins to repeat words uncontrollably and quarantines himself in a room where he walks around naked, mumbling, and pisses into empty milk bottles. But Hughes manages to curb his eccentricities and restores himself for a congressional hearing which will determine the future of his aviation company(his mammoth plane Hercules especially) against Juan Trippe(Alec Baldwin) and his Pan-Am airways. Hughes fights it out with the wily Senator Brewster(Alan Alda) and defeats him in a battle of wits. Hughes successfully flies his Hercules, but we see his OCD still looming upon him. Scorsese and Logan refuse to take us any further. We don’t get to see Hughes succumbing to his madness and dying in a hotel room, at the age of 71, with his hair unkempt and nails unclipped!

Leonardo DiCaprio is not an obvious choice to play Howard Hughes, but he essays his part brilliantly. His struggle to hide his imperfections and keep them in check is very convincing. Cate Blanchett’s performance as Hepburn is one that you can’t describe in words. She is simply put- amazing, and truly deserving of an Oscar. Another person deserving the statuette is Robert Richardson. His cinematography elevates the movie from a simple biopic to an intriguing character study.

Puritans might argue that by removing the darker facet of Hughes’s life, Scorsese has tried to sanitize a fallen figure. Rather, Scorsese doesn’t make any excuses for the way Howard was. Scorsese never apologizes for his characters, be it ‘Raging Bull’ or ‘Taxi Driver’. The denouement of this movie somewhat lends it a haunting feel. As Trippe says of Hughes in the movie, “People should remember him as he was”. And Hughes was ultimately a visionary, a creator and an aviator! Reviewed on the 18th, February 2005.

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