“It was a time of brilliant aeronautical invention, turbulent love affairs and savage corporate battles. Prepare yourself for the ride of the lifetime of this billionaire, genius, madman.”
The Aviator is a brilliant film, from start to finish. Words can’t do justice to how incredibly well-made this film is. The casting is perfect, the script is flawless, the pace is consistently right to a tee, and the music, set designs, and costume designs are perfectly evocative of the period that this move was set in – America in the early 20th century.
The movie succeeds so splendidly, in no small part thanks to the man in the centre of the picture: Howard Hughes. He lived through enough drama to last one for a dozen lifetimes, and although he was blessed with riches from the cradle, he amassed most of his immense wealth using his own hands. He was a bit of everything: he made movies, designed and flew planes, was a shrewd businessman and industrialist. As the DVD back puts it, “one of the 20th century’s most compelling figures, Howard Hughes was a glamorous movie producer and unstoppable American innovator – but he thought of himself first and foremost as an aviator.” He dove headfirst into enormously risky endeavours that few would dare to even contemplate, dreamt up aircrafts whose designs and sizes must have seemed utterly bizarre and impossible at that time, and in the process of that, revolutionised the air travel industry. In that respect he truly deserves to be seen as one of the greatest innovators and pioneers of the 20th century. But the film also shows the other side of the coin: his genius and risk-taking nature propelled him to supernova heights as often as they ruined him. His was a life of glory and innumerable victories, and he left a brilliant legacy, but in retrospect the majority of his life could not have been a happy one. Like all subjects of great biopics, Howard Hughes’s own mind was his downfall. He died not in a plane crash, as one might have expected (though he did die in flight), but gradually as his mind deteriorated and took his body with it.
His reclusive activities (and possibly his drug use) made him practically unrecognizable; his hair, beard, fingernails, and toenails were long (possibly due to allodynia making him averse to touch), his tall 6 ft 4 in (193 cm) frame now weighed barely 90 lb (41 kg), and the FBI had to resort to fingerprints to identify the body.
The Aviator doesn’t go to the end. It doesn’t cover Howard Hughes’s entire life, but it ends on an ominous note that foreshadows Hughes’s descent into madness in his later life. This is a clever move, a point reiterated in Roger Ebert’s review. In doing so, in focusing “on the most prolific period… the mid-1920s through the 1940s”, the biopic brings out perhaps the most hopeful and triumphant period of Hughes’s life. Make no mistake, the knife of his mental illness was always hanging above his head, and the glorious moments, in full force through the film, were constantly tempered with tragic and dark moments. If the time-frame of the movie had been moved to a later stage of his life, it would no doubt have been far bleaker; if The Aviator had done it like La Vie en Rose and cut back-and-forth between the character in old age and at the peak of his/her life, the film would have been much longer than its 170 minutes, such is the depth and breadth of Hughes’s life and the disparity between his younger days and his final days. As it is, The Aviator maintains a fine balance between the triumphant moments and the moments of defeat.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a phenomenal actor, and here he delivers another near flawless performance. But it is Cate Blanchett who truly shines in her scenes; as Ebert so eloquently summed up in his review, “Cate Blanchett has the task of playing Katharine Hepburn, who was herself so close to caricature that to play her accurately involves some risk. Blanchett succeeds in a performance that is delightful and yet touching; mannered and tomboyish, delighting in saying exactly what she means, she shrewdly sizes up Hughes and is quick to be concerned about his eccentricities.”
Highlights from the film [spoilers]:
(Other) favourite scenes: Hughes lets Katharine Hepburn fly the plane
Rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Rating on IMDb: 7.5
Viewing history: Seen 1x. Library DVD