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Blu-ray Review: The Aviator - Scorsese's Fine Howard Hughes Biopic is Compulsive Viewing

Soaring into HD comes this oft-overlooked modern masterpiece: a compassionate and humane biopic about one of the twentieth centuries most complicated and influential figures.

Whilst preparing to review this blu-ray release of Martin Scorsese's 2004 Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator I commented on a popular social networking website that it was the director's best film. The response from one "follower" summed up the general mood, in a way which was as understated as it was unmistakably derisory: "are you serious?" Are you serious? Should a film by one of the great living directors - a film nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 5 (including snaring Cate Blanchett the Best Supporting Actress trophy for her uncanny turn as screen legend Katharine Hepburn) - be such a controversial personal choice? I suppose any film would generate a few snarling remarks were it compared to such unanimously canonised works as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Yet this Leonardo Di Caprio vehicle, about a billionaire who helped re-define air travel before falling prey to his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and winding up a reclusive figure of fun, is epic in terms of storytelling scope and in terms of its humanity. The Aviator starts off in the Golden Age of Hollywood, as Hughes personally films bi-plane dogfights for his notoriously expensive WWI film Hells Angels, which he directed. During his movie-making adventure (which also covers the controversy behind his risqué Jane Russell picture The Outlaw) we meet Blanchett's fast-talking, tomboyish Hepburn over golf and Kate Beckinsale's turn as another love of Hughes' life, Ava Gardener. Both are recognisable but neither is reduced to caricature with Blanchett especially impressive in an incredibly deep ensemble cast (with small roles for Ian Holm, John C. Reilly, Danny Huston and Willem Dafoe). Cameos give us a fleeting glimpse at other stars of the day: Jude Law pops up as dashing Australian lothario Errol Flynn and popstar Gwen Stefani does likewise as starlet Jean Harlow - the original "blonde bombshell": both ingenious and calculated uses of film star semiotics. Yet both serve a purpose, reminding a modern audience of Hughes' celebrity status in the 1930s, when he was a record breaking pilot as well as an LA film producer and regular subject of gossip columns. From here we go on through Hughes life in the aviation industry - the films main concern - watching his daring test flights as he breaks speed records (all the aerial sequences look spectacular). It is here that we're shown his acquisition of airline TWA, and with it his forward-looking efforts towards establishing safe inter-continental air travel. This ambition soon brings him into conflict with the airline establishment however as Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) of American aviation juggernauts Pan Am makes use of friends in Washington - chiefly Alan Alda's slippery Senator Owen Brewster - in order to assassinate Hughes' reputation, and end his business, on the grounds that he acted as a war profiteer during WWII. The charge stems from Hughes' ambitious Hercules project, as he scored a military contract to build a humongous, wooden plane capable of taking troops across the ocean to Europe whilst avoiding U-boats. However the project was never completed during the war and - after successfully defending himself against his accusers in an electric committee hearing sequence - Hughes resolves to complete and fly the so-called "Spruce Goose" as a final act of vindication at the film's bitter-sweet climax. An epic story, all true, about an obsessive genius, with his mental disorder slowly developing in the background parallel to his greatest achievements. The tragedy and drama here revolves around seeing such a capable and intelligent man fighting a losing battle against a then-undiagnosed mental condition. His tormentors even try to use his OCD against him, serving him undercooked fish and leaving marks on his glass, and we follow Hughes through this struggle as a man who could nonchalantly fly experimental planes at great personal risk (barely surviving several crashes) is reduced to the point where he can't bear to shake a man's hand. It's grand, epic, larger than life and served up with its directors usual Catholic sense of the baroque - yet it's also, at its core, a very personal and introspective story which touches on two of Scorsese's greatest recurring themes: obsession and madness. This story also enables the famously cine-literate craftsman to have fun with his own passion for the Hollywood of yesteryear. In this respect it's arguably the definitive portrait of what Martin Scorsese embodies as an artist. John Logan must also take a huge share of the credit too. The biopic is a genre littered with the corpses of less disciplined writers, who struggle to cram every experience of a given historical figure onto their pages from the cradle to the grave. The effect is often that the story is too loose and lacks a compelling narrative line and the characters are reduced to the thinnest possible versions of themselves. Logan's script wisely focusses on one twenty year period of Hughes' extraordinary life and does so in great detail. Allusions are made to his upbringing - in one very short opening scene of Hughes as a child, being bathed by his germophobic mother - and his future decline, but the narrative is kept very tight over the film's 169 minutes. And DiCaprio. The actor's committed and gimmick free embodiment of this larger than life figure, as he subtly undergoes great physical and mental changes, is the principle joy of the whole movie. I don't expect anyone else to share my assessment that this is Marty's finest film. I'm probably alone in granting it that honour. But make no mistake, The Aviator is a major work of the last decade and one of those instances where a critically acclaimed, Oscar-laden movie could be described as underrated.

Extras

The Aviator is loaded with extras. They are mostly contemporary, and not HD, but the disc offers over two hours of documentaries: A Life Without Limits: The Making of The Aviator (23 minutes), The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History (14 minutes), a History Channel documentary about Hughes' achievements (43 minutes), The Affliction of Howard Hughes: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (14 minutes), an OCD discussion panel with doctors, Hughes' widow, Di Caprio and Scorsese (14 minutes), an interview with songwriter/actor Louden Wainwright (5 minutes), as well as looks at production design (Dante Ferretti - 6 minutes), score (Howard Shore - 7 minutes), costumes (Sandy Powell - 3 minutes) and hair/make-up (8 minutes). Between them these docs end up re-using lots of the same talking head interview footage with the cast of the movie and various Howard Hughes experts, but they each contain their own fascinating insights into the process and the history behind the film. The history channel documentary stands out as rather odd in terms of tone, with the words "Boys Toys" flashing up on-screen every time we see a piece of military hardware - and with a triumphalist tone whenever it mentions "American military might" - but the other docs offer a more grounded, if often unashamedly celebratory, account of Howard Hughes. There is also an extended version of the scene between Hughes and Beckinsale's Ava Gardener in which the actress rejects his offer of an expensive piece of jewellery on the grounds that she can't be bought. Here the scene goes on for several more minutes as Di Caprio delivers a monologue about the worth of human life, revealing that he once killed a man behind the wheel of his car. The heavy-handed historicising and uneasy shift in tone within this sequence (which goes from earnest sentiment to glib black comedy within moments) make you thankful that it was cut down in the final edit of the film, and it represents a lot of the biopic pitfalls the finished so gracefully manages to sidestep. The best feature is undoubtedly the Martin Scorsese commentary. It's broken up with sound-bites from producers and other members of the crew, but when Marty speaks about film you are compelled to listen - especially during the period of the film depicting the Golden Age of Hollywood. The Aviator is released on Blu-ray from Monday.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.