Aviator, The (2004)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/07/05 18:44:44

"A phenomenal work, worth every inch of its hype."
5 stars (Awesome)

To call “The Aviator” Martin Scorsese’s best movie in over a decade may seem like a dab of film critic hyperbole or even a smidge of quote mongering. But it is neither - it is, instead, the truth. Scorsese, arguably the most naturally gifted and knowlegable filmmaker working today, has crafted an epic for the ages, a dazzling bit of Hollywood biography that belongs on the short list of his finest works.

The film, the story of billionaire Howard Hughes (his early years, at least), goes places we don’t quite expect. For starters, the casting ignores the modern biopic theory of “cast ‘em if they look like ‘em,” opting instead to find actors who capture the spirit, if not the faces, of the characters. And so we get Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes and Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn. Neither look the part, and yet I can’t imagine anyone else in the roles. Blanchett’s performance is a monument to the Great Kate, in all her independent, pants-wearing glory. And I could care less that Blanchett worked overtime to nail Hepburn’s accent; it’s body language that sells it here, a single stance enough to make me believe that this is Hepburn.

Meanwhile, DiCaprio looks too young for the part, and yet it matters not. What we get from DiCaprio is Hughes’ sense of endless energy and big ideas, as well as his heartbreaking descent into mental illness. When Hughes argues that twenty-four cameras for a single movie were not enough, we’re easily swept up in DiCaprio’s vigor. When he’s working on all cylinders, juggling movie ideas, aviation ideas, and business ideas all at once, we’re getting the sense of a genius at work. And when we watch the stumble into mental illness, we understand the workings of a mind at war with itself. What we get from DiCaprio is more than movie star posturing or biopic impressionism. We get the feeling of urgency that overwhelmed the character. This is DiCaprio’s finest work to date.

But this is not a movie about DiCaprio, no matter how impressive he is on screen. You see, while DiCaprio’s burning this up with his skilled performance, “The Aviator” is Scorsese’s show all the way. Here we have the filmmaker proving yet again that he is a master of his craft, and not even a venture into uncharted territory (this is the first Scorsese film to use sweeping visual effects) can trip him up. There is one reason to see this film, and it is Martin Scorsese.

Watch how effortlessly Scorsese balances character study and film technique. The film is riddled with clever bits of film trickery, most notably the use of color to reveal time. (Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson successfully recreate how color film would look in the era being seen in the film; as the Hughes’ story progresses, the color scheme evolves from a basic to a more modern look. Nifty.) We’re also wowed by camera placement both stationary and free-flowing (the complex tracking shots are always a treat), as well as the expert handling of the arial footage, all of which is simply breathtaking.

And yet Scorsese does not turn this into a showcase for neato camera trickery. Every shot, Scorsese understands, helps tell the story, and so camera placement and editing reveal Hughes’ experience. Consider a dinner scene in which Hughes’ intricately placed peas become unnervingly displaced, or a moment in which Hughes finds himself trapped in the men’s room, unable to leave due to his inability to touch the germ-ridden doorknob. As written, the script alone (a thrillingly complex work by John Logan, by the way) allows the audience to understand the situation with just the right amount of subtlety. But it’s Scorsese’s decisions on how to frame each shot (along with longtime editor and collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker choosing how to present them) that really gets us inside Hughes’ head. Every close up, every cut, every reaction shot from DiCaprio lets us feel the panic attack, right to the core. How many other filmmakers could get the same results, with such skillful precision?

There is much more to be said about “The Aviator,” but there’s also a lot to this movie that just needs to sink in, get digested. It is wonderful to experience in one viewing, to be sure, but there’s just so much here in this epic drama that multiple viewings are a must. This is a film to be watched and discussed repeatedly, a film that will create new opinions upon each viewing, a film that provides both marvelous entertainment and marvelous cinema. In other words, this is a Martin Scorsese picture, among the master’s very best.

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