Combustible Celluloid
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With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Kate Beckinsale, Jude Law, Gwen Stefani, Ian Holm, Alan Alda, Willem Dafoe
Written by: John Logan
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence
Running Time: 169
Date: 12/14/2004

The Aviator (2004)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Flying High

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Martin Scorsese shows both sides of himself in his new film, the masterful The Aviator, which casts Leonardo DiCaprio as eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes. For the first hour or so, we see Scorsese the film lover, the one who dutifully re-creates Hughes' expensive and troubled production of Hell's Angels (1930) and introduces us to a lovely and funny Katharine Hepburn (played spot-on by Cate Blanchett).

At a vicious turning point, Scorsese unveils his dark side, the side that produced the intense films Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), as Hughes gives in to his psychotic demons. Scarred, twisted and neurotic, Hughes locks himself in a darkened room -- lit only by the beam of a movie projector -- and stares his demons in the face.

The Aviator breezes through the erratic 1920, '30s and '40s, when Hughes made Hell's Angels and The Outlaw with Jane Russell, built bigger and faster airplanes, and competed with Pan Am for the right to run international flights. It shows his spectacular and devastating plane crash, which leaves him incalculably damaged, and explores his germ phobia, his bizarre, obsessive perfectionism and his frightening crack-ups.

In truth, the film's 169-minute running time is barely enough to contain such a life, and it skims through various events and encounters, but what remains is a singular portrait of an amazing man presented by a great artist. The Aviator is big enough and exuberant enough that Hughes himself might have ordered it made.

Amazingly, Scorsese still finds time for brilliant characterizations of the other people in Hughes' life, which is difficult in a biopic so steadfastly centered on one man. Besides Blanchett's brilliant achievement, Kate Beckinsale shines as a gorgeous Ava Gardner, Alec Baldwin stirs up some brilliant moments as the oily president of Pan Am, Alan Alda is remarkably snaky as a corrupt senator and Jude Law blusters through two scenes as Errol Flynn.

Working again with his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese understands the necessity of establishing moments of quiet and reflection, which most other biopics routinely neglect. Among the best features: Blanchett describing her brother's funeral, and Baldwin delivering one or two terrific pauses in the action.

Scorsese's greatest triumph is that he finished a great film in the face of impossible odds. Saddled with one of the world's worst screenwriters, John Logan (Star Trek: Nemesis, The Last Samurai), and the micro-managing, scissor-happy producer Harvey Weinstein, the master director rallied his troops, worked them double time and overcame all obstacles. Without question, The Aviator is one of the year's best films.

Warner Home Video presents their big Oscar winner on a two-disc DVD set. If you notice that the first 45 (or so) minutes of the film looks a little blue (especially the scene on the golf course with Hepburn), don't worry and don't adjust your TV. Scorsese does it on purpose to pay tribute to the two-strip Technicolor of the era. Disc One comes with a Scorsese commentary track, while Disc Two comes with several brief featurettes, all using the usual movie clips and talking heads. Two feature on-stage interviews with DiCaprio and others. Otherwise, there's a still gallery and a short deleted scene. The best extra by far is a 45-minute documentary on Hughes from the History Channel. Annoyingly, these extras are spread out across five animated menus.

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