Film Review: The Aviator (2004)

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(source: tmdb.org)
In the world of cinema, great filmmakers often create both triumphs and failures of equal magnitude, and Martin Scorsese is no exception. As the new millennium began, Scorsese's pursuit of Oscars seemed increasingly futile, culminating in his 2004 biopic, The Aviator, which is arguably the most ambitious film of his career. The film delves into the life of Howard Hughes, the legendary aviation pioneer, inventor, business magnate, Hollywood mogul, and playboy who later became infamous for his eccentricity and reclusive lifestyle, spawning countless urban legends and conspiracy theories.

John Logan's script, partially based on Charles Higham's 1993 book, Howard Hughes: The Secret Life, covers Hughes' life from 1927 to 1947. It begins with the young Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood while utilising his technological prowess to create both innovative sound films and groundbreaking aircraft. The film explores Hughes' romantic liaisons with Hollywood stars, such as Katharine Hepburn (played by Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (played by Kate Beckinsale), and later, his feud with politicians like Senator Owen Brewster (played by Alan Alda). The Aviator concludes with Hughes piloting the Hughes H-4 Hercules, also known as the Spruce Goose, the biggest aircraft of its time. This short yet symbolic personal triumph marks the beginning of Hughes' mental decline that would plague him for the rest of his life.

Scorsese, a renowned connoisseur of American film history, was undoubtedly drawn to the subject matter of The Aviator. However, another driving force behind the film was the hope of winning over the nostalgic hearts of elderly AMPAS voters by portraying Hollywood's golden age. Additionally, featuring a character with an apparent mental affliction, like Hughes, would likely garner more attention from the Academy, as such demanding roles often result in awards.

Despite its clear adherence to formula, The Aviator had the potential to become the Citizen Kane of the 21st century. However, this lofty goal was beyond even Scorsese's reach. In strictly technical terms, The Aviator is a success, with Scorsese showcasing his superb directing skills, supported by Robert Richardson's excellent cinematography, impressive special effects that relied more on miniatures than CGI, and a substantial budget from Disney and Paramount, which allowed for meticulous recreations of Hollywood's bygone era.

The film's downfall, however, is its lack of a proper story. While Hughes is undeniably a fascinating character, screenwriter John Logan struggled to condense the intricate details of his life into a coherent plot. As with many biopics, numerous aspects were omitted for the sake of simplicity or to avoid portraying Hughes in a negative light, such as his destruction of RKO Pictures, his involvement in McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunts, and his role in shaping the US military-industrial complex.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a commendable performance as Hughes, but his efforts cannot compensate for the script's shortcomings. Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, shines in her relatively small role as Katharine Hepburn, earning a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

In the end, The Aviator, despite its visual splendor and glamour, leaves audiences with a sense of emptiness and soullessness, resembling the formulaic biopics churned out by US television in the latter part of the 20th century. The AMPAS voters seemed to share this sentiment, awarding Oscars to Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby instead, resulting in one of Scorsese's most significant career humiliations. Two years later, Scorsese finally received an Oscar for The Departed, although many consider it a consolation prize.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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