J.D. Lafrance
The Aviator DVD Review

The Aviator

November 18, 2005

Director: Martin Scorsese,
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law, Adam Scott, Matt Ross, Kelly Garner, Frances Conroy, Brent Spiner,

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DVD Review

J.D. Lafrance

For years, Martin Scorsese has been unfairly overlooked by the Academy Awards (GoodFellas losing out to Dances with Wolves?!). He is the perennial Hollywood outsider. In recent years, the veteran filmmaker seems to become aware of this slight and, like one of his contemporaries, Steven Spielberg, has tried to make more Academy friendly films with Gangs of New York (2002) and more recently, The Aviator (2004). Despite the presence of Michael Mann as producer and Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading man, the Oscar has alluded Scorsese yet again.

This time out, Scorsese tackles the life of Howard Hughes, industrialist, movie producer and aviator, with an emphasis on his most productive period: the mid-1920s through to the 1940s before he became the world’s most famous recluse entrenched in Las Vegas. It was during this period that Hughes was at the height of his popularity and powers, dating beautiful Hollywood movie stars like Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Beckinsale).

When he was not busy making Hell’s Angels (a three years in the making war epic), setting speed records and designing new aircraft, he was being seen about the town with the latest Hollywood starlet or ingenue. He meets his match with Hepburn who talks his ear off. She’s tough and smart and this is what he finds so attractive about her. The scenes between DiCaprio and Blanchett are good. They have a definite chemistry together and develop a tender relationship.

The story of Howard Hughes clearly echoes the myth of Icarus. The more ambitious and powerful Hughes became, the greater the danger of failing. He went up against Juan Trippe’s (Baldwin) Pan-Am airlines to compete for commercial international air travel. The two fought dirty, generating as much bad press on one another in an ever-escalating battle that culminated in highly publicized hearings on Capitol Hill. This puts an incredible amount of stress on the already obsessive-compulsive Hughes and the cracks began to show.

With recent strong performances in Catch Me If You Can (2002) and Gangs of New York, Leonardo DiCaprio has finally managed to distance himself from the Titanic (1997) phenomenon. With The Aviator, he delivers his strongest, most textured performance to date. He captures the tycoon’s intensity with a piercing stare and a tough, no compromising attitude. Hughes was a perfectionist, obsessed and driven to a fault and DiCaprio captures this perfectly. Like Scorsese’s aggressive camera, DiCaprio always seems to be in motion, a metaphor for his restless nature. The actor does a great job of showing Hughes’ gradual descent into madness and paranoia. It starts off as the occasional tic and then develops into a compulsion to repeat a particular phrase again and again. This behaviour culminates to the point where he locks himself into his screening room for weeks: he develops long, unkempt hair and fingernails as he shuts himself off from the outside world and reality.

Not since New York, New York (1977) has Scorsese crafted such a lavish homage to classic Hollywood cinema. The opulent set of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub that Hughes frequents in The Aviator evokes the glitzy clubs that Jimmy and Francine frequent in New York, New York. There is a magical sequence where Hughes takes Hepburn on a romantic plane ride late at night with the lights of Los Angeles below them. They bond and it is a rare moment when he doesn’t worry about germs. It makes one wonder if she was the true love of his life. She taught him about the dangers of celebrity but ultimately they lived in different worlds.

The attention to detail is impressive as are the performances (including the likes of Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Cate Blanchett and the always reliable John C. Reilly). The editing, by long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, is elegant when it needs to be and visceral at the right moments (especially the scene where Hughes crash-lands his spy plane prototype into a Beverly Hills suburb). Robert Richardson’s cinematography recalls classic Hollywood cinema giving everything a glamourous sheen.

Scorsese paints a fascinating portrait of this complex individual, his triumphs and his flaws with a vivid brush. It may seem that the director has moved away from intimate, personal movies but this is because the larger-than-life subject is reflected in the film’s grandiose style. Scorsese has lost none of his passion. This is hardly a movie done by a filmmaker on autopilot. The Aviator is a finely crafted, entertaining biopic that is ambitious but wisely doesn’t try to cram Hughes’ entire life into one movie, instead focusing on a specific period of time. DiCaprio and Scorsese present an unsentimental portrait which probably didn’t endear it with the Academy but this makes for a much more interesting film.

Special Features:

On disc one there is an audio commentary by Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker and Michael Mann. Scorsese dominates the track with the occasional comments by Schoonmaker and Mann. Scorsese wanted to show the humanity of Hughes by depicting his early life before he lost touch with reality completely. He talks at length about Hughes’ place in history and in cinema while Schoonmaker touches upon the film’s themes and how she conveyed them through editing. This is an engrossing, informative track that fleshes out Hughes’ backstory.

The second disc features a deleted scene in which Hughes tells Ava Gardner about how, years ago, he accidentally killed a man with his car and paid his family $20,000 to keep quiet. It is an oddly poignant moment of regret that further humanizes Hughes.

“A Life without Limits: The Making of The Aviator” is a featurette cum press kit comprised of standard soundbites from the cast mixed with clips from the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio had been fascinated with Howard Hughes since he was 20 and has been involved with the project longer than anyone. He did extensive research and this certainly shows in his an amazing performance.

“The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History” features Hughes biographers talking about how the man developed a love of aviation from an early age. Hughes was always willing to risk his vast fortune to realize his dreams. These biographers also talk about the man’s numerous innovations and records that he set.

A nice follow-up to this extra is a 43-minute History Channel documentary entitled, “Modern Marvels: Howard Hughes.” This is an excellent look at his life, complete with archival footage and photos. The doc touches upon many of the events depicted in the movie and beyond but goes into more factual detail and less artistic interpretation.

“The Affliction of Howard Hughes: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” takes a look at how the disorder went undiagnosed when Hughes was alive. To portray it accurately, DiCaprio did a lot of research. The doctor he worked with defines the symptoms and the characteristics.

This is followed by “OCD Panel Discussion with Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese and Hughes’ Widow Terry Moore.” The actor talks about how he got into Hughes’ mindset and portrayed OCD realistically and not with some simple imitation. He really got inside Hughes’ head and often took the affliction home with him. Scorsese speaks about how he depicted this disorder in the movie.

“An Evening with Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda” is a Q&A session done after a screening of the movie. DiCaprio talks about how he got interested in Hughes’ life and about the evolution of the project, from the early stages with Michael Mann to finally making the movie with Scorsese. Alda mentions how he got involved and tells a funny story about his first impressions of the man he was supposed to play. This is an entertaining, engaging extra.

There are two featurettes that explore the visual effects and production design of The Aviator.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance


Rating: 97%



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