Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: The Aviator (2004)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at Enuffa.com!  Oscar season is in full swing, so stay tuned for this year's predictions with my colleague Mike Drinan, who usually kicks my ass at prognostication....

Today's entry is a relatively recent one, and by recent I mean it was released this century (The fact that 2004 was already 17 years ago makes me feel old AF).  It's Martin Scorsese's epic biopic The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as eccentric billionaire/filmmaker/aviation engineer Howard Hughes.  The second of five (so far) Scorsese/DiCaprio collaborations, The Aviator chronicles Hughes' rise to worldwide fame and the beginning/middle of his descent into OCD-triggered paranoia and reclusion.  Hughes took Hollywood by storm in the late 20s/early 30s with films like his World War I epic Hell's Angels (at that point the most expensive film ever made due to both its spectacular flight sequences and the fact that he reshot much of it when talkies burst on the scene), and Scarface (considered incredibly violent for 1932 and the inspiration for the 1983 Pacino film).  His perfectionism and penchant for overspending on his projects made him both the talk of the town and the scourge of both major industries in which he worked.  After becoming a successful director-producer he leaned more into aviation, designing and building planes for private companies and the US government, and eventually buying TWA.  In the 30s and 40s he ran afoul of Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), president of PanAm Airlines with designs on monopolizing international air travel, to the point that he'd purchased a US Senator, Maine Republican Owen Brewster (a slimy Alan Alda).  Brewster's strategy for ruining Hughes was to publicly accuse him of war profiteering and hope that the bad press would bankrupt TWA and clear the road for Trippe, but of course things didn't go Brewster's way.
The Aviator spans the years 1927-1947, finishing its story just before Hughes' final self-exile, though it does include a three-month period where Hughes shut himself up in his private screening room, giving us a glimpse of what his final years must have been like.  His most significant romantic relationship was with Katharine Hepburn (a splendid Cate Blanchett deftly avoiding the crossover into parody), who was Hughes' match in adventure-seeking and larger-than-life histrionics.  It was during their tumultuous coupling that Hughes began to be consumed with the OCD symptoms that would haunt him the rest of his life.  DiCaprio handles the different facets of this bombastic figure with great restraint, showing us a man who was able to cope and mask his condition in public, until he wasn't.  His numerous passions carried him through most situations, almost distracting him from the OCD long enough to see his professional obsessions through (the most infamous of which was the Spruce Goose, the largest aircraft ever built).  Perhaps the most striking example is the third-act scene where he lawyers the crap out of Senator Brewster at the Congressional hearing, talking circles around the crooked politician and making him a laughingstock.  Brewster was dragged so hard in fact that his proposed bill awarding PanAm exclusivity in international travel was soundly defeated.

Scorsese throws in a striking visual gimmick for the first third of the film - every scene taking place before 1935 is digitally altered to look like the old two-strip color process, giving nature-heavy images an artificial blue tinge and making everyone's skin look unnaturally bronzed.  In later scenes set during the early Technicolor era, the images are impossibly vibrant, leaping off the screen.  I found this a uniquely interesting approach in setting period mood; rather than being thrust into the period itself, we feel like we're inside films made *during* the period.  There are also numerous CG-enhanced flying sequences, where physical miniatures are made to look like they're streaking across the sky, and a harrowing downtown Beverly Hills plane crash scene in which Hughes nearly loses his life after his XF-11 recon craft fails midair.  For the most part these effects are convincing, though one can spot the limitations of early 2000s CG, which for me dates a film more than old-school practical effects.  

All-in-all The Aviator is a fascinating, immersive look at one of Hollywood's more bizarre success stories featuring excellent lead performances and a host of strong supporting turns, and given weight and momentum by Scorsese's visual inventiveness and kinetic storytelling.  It's quite remarkable that his slate of 21st century DiCaprio films rivals his collaborations with DeNiro; even in his 60s and 70s Scorsese remains one of our most potent filmmakers.

I give The Aviator **** out of ****.

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