The Aviator (2004)
Written by John Logan
Directed Martin Scorsese
The 2000s was a decade of indulgence for Martin Scorsese’s films. This and Gangs of New York are the chief examples following an interest by the public in historical dramas told in an epic style. I don’t think this format works with Scorsese’s strengths as a filmmaker, but I applaud him for trying something different. Even a middle-of-the-road Scorsese film is better than many directors’ best work. In another director’s hands, The Aviator might play as a standard biopic, but Scorsese makes sure the story remains centered on the person at the center of it and Howard Hughes as a filmmaker, a way into the story that connects with the director. Leonardo DiCaprio is also coming into his own here, taking on a much more mature role than his previous work, no longer attempting to be a “movie heartthrob” but really coming into his own as a performer, willing to do things that push him further in the craft.
Howard Hughes (DiCaprio) is obsessed with making his film Hell’s Angels, a World War I picture about aerial dogfights. The release of The Jazz Singer and its revolution of sound drives Hughes to want to capture the realism of the experience of being in the air, making audiences feel they are soaring with the planes. Yet another significant change amid production is making his crew and the studio nervous. Since childhood, Hughes has struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), likely rooted in his experience during the 1913 cholera outbreak in Houston. Hughes also uses his vast wealth made by his family from the oil business to buy whatever he pleases and gets into the company of many famous actresses of the time. But the two extreme sides of this man begin to crack as his obsessions take over his sanity.
The core theme of The Aviator is about how we are drawn to make a human connection but also repulsed by each other and how this complicates the human experience. This unresolved psychological state in Hughes becomes like a virus spreading into the people around him, but no one feels its impact more than him. Scorsese makes anxiety and panic extremely palpable, and DiCaprio has a potent skill of presenting these feelings viscerally. For example, there’s a bathroom scene where the OCD floods Hughes’ psyche, and he becomes effectively paralyzed inside the room. Only another patron coming in allows him to slip out. While I’ve never felt anxiety to those extremes as someone who feels it, especially in the last couple of years, it was good to see it portrayed in a non-exploitative way on the screen.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (which is still raging globally, and we are currently in the middle of what is shaping up to be a brutal late summer/early fall wave), it has added greater context to Hughes’ compulsions and fear of disease. Despite high vaccination levels in my area, I still wear an N95 mask anytime I go into a building with many people (grocery store, train station, etc.). There is a sense of alienation as you watch most people seemingly give up. The ability to connect is much more challenging, and your anxiety spikes out of a sense of feeling gaslit.
The film falls prey to a lot of problems with biopics. The main one is that it attempts to present its protagonist as favorable to the audience. Hughes’ racism and misogyny are downplayed in favor of a sanitized version of the man. I don’t entirely blame Scorsese for this; he was brought on after the film had already gone into production and director Michael Mann dropped out. DiCaprio recommended Scorsese because of their work together in Gangs of New York. So, the director is working with what he was handed and didn’t have much time to rewrite. I wish the film had worked to present Hughes in a more accurate light, but that just didn’t happen. I think we would have had a more robust performance from DiCaprio because (as we will later see) when the actor is allowed to play despicable people like Jordan Belfort, he does an excellent job.
I missed a wonderful technical element the first time I watched the film but noticed it this time. The movie makes tremendous use of digital color correction that adds to the story rather than just existing as an incidental aesthetic. Because Scorsese is such a devoted cinephile, he understands the significance of the moment Hughes lived in regarding the development of movies. Not only was sound added to film, but color was also being experimented with. Cinematographer Robert Richardson used various analog techniques to recreate the look and color of movies from this period. The color and lighting are also used to shift between Hughes’ mindset with the most Technicolor look coming during his periods of stability and professional success. When things get tough, the color changes. Color also changes over time, showing how movies of the period underwent a transformation.
The Aviator is not one of my favorite Scorsese films because it’s not a more personal one. I’ve felt that the more Scorsese is personally connected to the material, the better the final product will be. That’s why films centered on Italian-Americans or the experiences of people in New York City always ring more honest to me than something like this one. It’s still worth a viewing, but not where I would take someone to introduce them to the work of this magnificent filmmaker.
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