The Aviator Movie Review
Martin Scorsese is a strong contender for my favourite director of all time (although he has strong competition from the likes of Michael Mann: Heat, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans and Chris Nolan: The Dark Knight, Memento, Inception). He edges out the others mainly because he has made some of the most amazing films in the last four of decades, and it is a travesty that he did not get acknowledged at the Oscars but for one of his few films which arguable did not deserve such a merit. I don't even know how to begin with his work – standout classics have to include almost all of his collaborations with the once-great Robert De Niro: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino – but some of his non-De Niro films have also been superb, like the vastly underrated The Last Temptation of Christ.
Conversely, I had never really rated Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor and I never really liked any of his early, frequently teen pin-up films. Perhaps this is because I felt that he was always too youthful to play mature roles: though his first collaboration with Scorsese was a fantastic movie – The Gangs of New York – the true star was undoubtedly Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood), and DiCaprio was clearly overshadowed by such superior acting talent. Between that and all the talk of his being the new De Niro, I was, at that point, still far from impressed. But, over the years, DiCaprio has proven me well and truly wrong. In order, we had The Departed (a great performance in an unfortunate rip-off of a film – the one Scorsese gleaned a ‘tribute’ Award for), Blood Diamond, Body of Lies, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island (a haunting return to form with Scorsese) and Inception – a litany of films which range from good to absolutely cracking masterpieces. In fact, where De Niro, arguably the greatest actor of his generation, has now become perhaps one of the less reliable actors out there, DiCaprio has, conversely, graduated not only to the place of being one of the most reliable, but also to become arguably the greatest actor of his generation: a truly skilled star who can mould himself to any part he wants and simply become the character he wishes to be.
And to think that this all started only about 7 years ago, during his second collaboration with Scorsese, The Aviator, a biopic about the eccentric visionary Howard Hughes: that was when I first noticed the actor DiCaprio disappear, only here to be replaced by none other than the enigmatic Mr. Hughes.
The Aviator charts the life of Hughes, from his early years as a born-rich multi-millionaire industrialist, to his contributions to the film industry and his pioneering endeavours in aviation. We get to see Hughes gamble everything on the most expensive film production embarked upon – up until that time – Hell's Angels, and risk his life flying some of the fastest and biggest planes ever. He lives the playboy lifestyle – dating some of the most glamorous stars at the time, like Katherine Hepburn, Jean Harlow and Ava Gardner – and spends more money than even he has, fuelling his almost impossible, always incredible dreams; but deep inside he is a very troubled genius. And this is where the movie truly excels, taking a detailed look at what made this guy tick. Initially just an eccentric, who appears to have much more money than sense, his behaviour eventually drifts into what can only be labelled as obsessive-compulsive disorder – and it can only be tempered by his contacts with reality, namely his lovers. Without them he drifts, slowly but surely, into ever-destructive madness.
Several filmmakers had already attempted to make a biopic on Howard Hughes, from Brian De Palma (Blow Out, Carlito’s Way) to Warren Beatty (Bonnie & Clyde, Bugsy). Even the remaining Hughes family themselves tried to get a project financed, with Johnny Depp pipped for the lead. The mantle eventually passed to Edward Norton and then, somewhat unbelievably, Jim Carrey, who was due to star in a project that eventually went on to be cancelled due to the release of The Aviator. Martin Scorsese was selected to Direct, with Leonardo DiCaprio already in place to play Hughes, but The Aviator did not start off as a Scorsese project. Indeed it was acclaimed perfectionist Director Michael Mann (Heat, Manhunter, Miami Vice) who first got involved in the project, partnering with DiCaprio to produce piece; them both doing extensive research in preparation. It’s only when Mann decided to step down as Director – mainly because he felt that, after The Insider and Ali, he wanted a break from biopics – that he offered the position to Scorsese.
Now it’s impossible to tell just how much pre-production work was done by Mann, just how involved he was in the production before handing over the reins to Scorsese but, whilst Scorsese isn’t unfamiliar with extensively-researched productions of his own, I think that it is safe to assume that a number of residual ideas remained from when Mann stepped down; ideas which would become integral to how well this project worked.
For example, the movie was shot in a multi-stage colour-coded fashion: the first 50 minutes of the film processed to be presented in only shades of red and cyan blue (green tones, like the peas on Hughes’s plate during the early meeting with Errol Flynn, would thus appear blue) – this was intended to replicate emulate the look of early bi-pack colour movies, which were dominant prior to 1935; then, the colours within the movie evolve to be saturated in the fashion of three-strip Technicolor, to reflect the post-1935 switch to Technicolor. This kind of extensive colour-processing is something of a trademark of Mann, who has adopted a similar approach in a number of his features – most prominently Manhunter (although also in the likes of Heat).
The original plan was to shoot the movie in 1.33:1 academy aspect ratio, which was the common aspect ratio for all films made up until the mid-fifties, but due to the fact that cinemas did not easily cater for this format, this idea was dropped in favour of the varying colour processing, which worked remarkably well – so well, in fact, that the film won a Best Cinematography Oscar probably as a large result of this.
Mann also had a hand in writing the original screenplay, which was also extensively researched – DiCaprio having spent a considerable amount of time planning for the role, soaking up background information about Hughes as told by those still alive who carried memories of the pioneer, as well as the two of them having looked at the reality of extreme Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, as explained by a real-life sufferer. Authenticity to this disorder was made paramount, and a number of key scenes, particularly where Hughes says the same phrase over and over again, are trademarks of extreme OCD sufferers – they become obsessed with saying the same phrase repeatedly, trying to perfect the intonation, as if it just doesn’t sound quite right in their heads.
“Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Showme all the blueprints.”
Of course this is still a Scorsese film through and through, he just happened to have a little help in the preparation. Scorsese himself made some excellent decisions through Pre-Production and filming, not least was the choice to use full-scale static and miniature-scale moving models for much of the aerial footage, a stance Scorsese took after the negative reaction to the CG aircraft scenes in films like Pearl Harbor. This was unquestionably the right choice, paying off in dividends, as it enabled the stunning flying – and crashing – sequences to look much more authentic. Many of the miniatures were still pretty big – even at 1:4 scale, models like the one done for the XF-11 Stealth plane had a 25ft wingspan – and yet still cost less to manufacture and film with than the equivalent CG shots would have done.
Indeed some of the aerial photography is stunning, capturing the breathtaking speed, or scope of the different flights – whether it be during the breakneck run of the initial H-1 Racer, which Hughes sought to break the world speed record in; or the impossibly daunting task of getting the huge H-4 Hercules (aka the ‘Spruce Goose’) flying boat into the air – a beast which, to this day, has the largest wingspan of any aircraft in aviation history. Scorsese uses spinning camera shots, front-of-plane point-of-view shots, and broader CG-enhanced setpieces to render some of the grandest, most grandstanding aerial cinematography with perfect, loving respect and veritable realism. You feel the speed, the weight, and the desperation of Hughes as he flies these cutting-edge crafts – undaunted, unstoppable, yet also eminently human when it comes to these flying machines, which were, more often than not, prone to catastrophic failure.
Back on dry land Scorsese also pulled out all the stops to capture the mind behind the method and the madness, painting a picture of the kind of pioneer who, at once, knows no limits, but, at the same time, often hits his limits with a painful thud. For all his aerial crash-and-burn escapades, his life was just as prone to disaster – if not even more so; and Scorsese puts you right into the thick of things, never leaving Hughes’s side for very long, cutting close in on his face, and even splitting the screen for reactionary shots from the increasingly paranoid eccentric as the world around – in his eyes – turns against him.
But all this would be nothing without the right lead – a mistake that has been made by numerous historical blockbusters recently, not least Troy, Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven. There was a time when casting DiCaprio was akin to casting Orlando 'wooden actor extraordinaire' Bloom in a lead role – i.e. absolutely ludicrous. I was pleased to find, however, that DiCaprio got it spot on here. He is simply perfectly cast as Hughes. At first, it seems like he is just playing himself – doing the rich and charming playboy thing appears to come naturally to him – but gradually, as his nervous tics emerge and his erratic, disturbed behaviour takes over, he stops being DiCaprio and starts becoming Howard Hughes. By the end of the film, you’ve forgotten it was DiCaprio at all, and just feel sorry for the grand tragedy that was Hughes’s life. It is a marvel that only some of the most talented actors can achieve – something which DeNiro himself used to be a master at – and is the very epitome of method acting. The performance here – and also the character itself – is not a million miles away from the relentlessly ambitious Oil prospector that the other great method-acting man, Daniel Day-Lewis, played in There Will Be Blood. Both films charted the somewhat tragic ups and downs of determined, successful, eccentric, and destructive pioneers, and both actors brought everything they had to the table to play the memorable lead characters so perfectly.
So, The Aviator was the first time that I was actually impressed with DiCaprio (so was the Oscar committee, who gave him the first of two successive Best Actor Nominations) and, although perhaps it didn’t make me want to go back over any of his past movies with new-found glee, it certainly made me keep an eye out for all his subsequent work; something which I have no regrets over, as he now stands as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Acting-wise, he has not put a step wrong in over 7 years (and just as many movies). In fact, later this year we will be getting the new Clint Eastwood biopic J. Edgar, where he takes on the titular roles as the founder of the FBI; I can’t wait.
The movie is clearly and indisputably carried by DiCaprio’s towering powerhouse performance, but he is not the only acting talent present, even if all of the other characters are simply subsidiary to his. The next most prominent is the role of Katherine Hepburn, played enigmatically by the underrated Cate Blanchett, who has provided consistently superb performances in such myriad work as the underrated alternative Western, The Missing; the historical Elizabeth movies; and, more recently, the genre-defying Hanna (not to mention her contributions to two massive franchises – LOTR, and Indy IV). Blanchett embraces her character in much the same way DiCaprio does Hughes, and this is quite something to watch because Hepburn was renowned for being 'unusual', to say the least. To embody the character, she prepared by studying no less than 15 of Hepburn’s movies, adopting the appropriate Upper Class New Englander accent as well as all the trademark mannerisms. It is a performance which perhaps alienates her from the audience at times, what with her striking accent, overpoweringly strong behaviour and eccentric tics – which both put her at odds with Hughes, and yet still made her the ideal companion – but it is a testament to her acting talent that she managed to be so convincing.
Next up is Alec Baldwin. Whatever happened to him? Easily the most talented of the Baldwin brothers, his early successes with films like The Hunt for Red October eventually gave way to a series of increasingly average movies. Thankfully he made something of a comeback (ever since his fantastic scene-stealing lead in The Cooler) and his part here as the head of PanAm is also very dominating. It is certainly good to see him back in the limelight, even if this is not his movie. Amidst the other many loves in Hughes' life, Ava Gardner was also a sturdy companion – and a close friend as much as anything else – and Kate Beckinsale, whilst you might have her as your first choice, is remarkably good in the role. Don't get me wrong, I think Beckinsale is lovely and her parts in smaller movies like Serendipity, alongside the fantastic John Cusack, are just as endearing as her action-heroine roles in the Underworld films, but here she is simply required to commit more to the role, and, arguably, actually act. It is a solid performance, thankfully really since Gardner was an important part of Hughes' life. There are also noteworthy contributions from John C. Reilly, as Hughes's faithful right hand man; Alan Alda, perfectly cast as a conniving Senator desperate to ruin Hughes; the ever-reliable Ian Holm, as a much put-upon scientist who also stands loyal by Hughes’s side; and even a brief glimpse of Gwen Stefani, only ostensibly convincing as starlet Jean Harlow.
So, what we have here is a bunch of almost universally great performances; a rich, extensively-researched biographical story which incorporates themes of mental illness, wanton extravagance, and pioneering excellence; some stunning cinematography and adventurous colour design, simultaneously replicating the era that the movie was set in, and making it visually opulent for a modern generation; an excellent score (from Howard ‘LOTR’ Shore) which is at once haunting yet thoroughly rousing; and tour-de-force directing to pool all these wonderful elements into a memorable, classic modern epic. Nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards, it won almost half of them (including Editing, Costume Design, Art Direction and – as aforementioned – Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress for Blanchett), but why, oh why was Scorsese not acknowledged for this movie? He wasn’t even Nominated for Best Director? Ok, so his De Niro films are just as under-awarded and arguably superior (c.f. Raging Bull), but this is such a moving, accessible movie that it should have been given greater acclaim.
At the end of the day this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. How many filmmakers could research a biopic so meticulously? How many directors could traverse decades so magically? How many actors could capture such a multi-faceted and eminently flawed individual so masterfully? The triple-combo of Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio marked an incredible confluence of forces. It’s a rare event – like when Brian De Palma directed Oliver Stone’s script with Al Pacino starring in Scarface. Three great men coming together to produce one great work of art. I simply cannot recommend The Aviator highly enough: it is a definitively a must-see movie.
The Aviator was one of the more memorable DVD releases that I reviewed, back in the day, in terms of picture quality, and it’s nice to see that the Blu-ray upgrade is just as stunning, only stunning on an entirely new level. Coming to UK Region B-locked Blu-ray in 1080p High Definition in the movie's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.4:1 widescreen, the detail is exceptional, from the meticulously realised aerial sequences to the gala receptions, to the steadily increasing zoom on DiCaprio’s/Hughes’s increasingly strained face. Clarity remains throughout without any sign of edge enhancement or digital defects like aggressive DNR. There’s also a nice and suitably cinematic layer of grain that runs throughout the piece. Of course the colour scheme shifts according to setting – during the early era of bi-pack-styled filmwork, everything takes on a slightly pinkishy or teal-ish tinge, (with no proper greens whatsoever) but, don’t worry, this is utterly intentional; and later, when we get greens, they are extremely aggressive, the Technicolor elements almost in line with today’s colour scheme, but obviously intentionally slightly off. Black levels are strong and deep, allowing for excellent shadowing throughout. The US release has been out for 4 years, but always came with a stunning video presentation; this new UK release thankfully boasts exactly the same excellent rendition.
Now here is where things get slightly interesting. For as much as the US Blu-ray video transfer was spectacular even back in 2007 (and the 2011 UK version is just as good), the US audio on the 2007 Blu-ray release was far from spectacular – just a simple Dolby Digital 5.1 track in fact. This new UK release could have easily gone down the same route ( and I would have spent the next couple of paragraphs ranting about it) but thankfully has been – finally – upgraded to the full DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that this movie always deserved. It was well worth waiting for too, a powerful aural offering that sounds absolutely fantastic. Dialogue is presented clearly and coherently from across the frontal array, with myriad effects coming through across the surround channels – from the obvious louder noises (like the numerous aerial sequences – the rumbling engines and the thunderous crash sequences) to the quieter, more atmospheric moments. The score is moving and penetrating, sweeping you up in the proceedings and engulfing you in the epic scale of this voyage of a movie. Considerably superior to the good-but-not-great Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the US release, this DTS-HD Master Audio offering is easily reference quality, and one of the better tracks that I have come across this year.
Again, the US Blu-ray release back in 2007 – and even the preceding DVD release – came sporting a huge selection of extras, covering all the bases and comprehensive in the extreme. Thankfully all the important ones have been ported over here, so no complaints really.
First up there is a Feature Length Audio Commentary with Director, Martin Scorsese, Editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Producer Michael Mann. Although recorded separately, and not in conversation, it is still nice to hear not only from the master himself, but also from his partner in crime, Thelma (who worked on all of his films), and even get a bit of Michael Mann, another great director - behind Heat and, more recently Collateral - thrown into the mix. Scorsese contributes the most - talking twenty to the dozen - and at times needs to be paused in order for his comments to be digested. He is also slightly erratic in his discussion, jumping from idea to idea, but still providing a wealth of background into the production and, primarily, into the man himself. Schoonmaker and Mann aren't as prominent, and tend to talk more generally about the reception of the movie rather than its production - although they do occasionally offer some revelatory points about the on-screen action. Mann himself was originally slated to direct the movie, so it is great to have his input here on the track. It is an informative - and heavy-going - track that should be digested in segments but is well worth the time and effort.
There is a single Deleted Scene: Howard Tells Ava about His Car Accident. Running at ninety seconds in length it is merely an extension to an existing scene, although it does reveal an interesting piece of Hughes' history.
Modern Marvels: Howard Hughes – A History Channel Documentary runs at forty-three minutes in length and is slightly more gimmicky, with an irritating voice-over, but is extremely informative. It charts his life from birth to death, explaining his interest in building and modifying things even during his childhood, and his move into Hollywood and the aviation industry. We get even more classic footage here, including stills from his movies, shots of his memorable test flights and a brief glimpse at his Government investigation and his mammoth Spruce Goose flight. Although hearing the same story several times is getting a little tedious now, there are some interesting new facts to hear about here, but I would recommend not watching all the documentaries sequentially.
A Life Without Limits: The Making of The Aviator runs at eleven minutes and features contributions from all of the main cast members – DiCaprio, Beckinsale and Blanchett, along with the director, Martin Scorsese. It has a little too much film footage, but thankfully splices in a considerable amount of behind the scenes set footage and some nice historical stills. The crew members credit DiCaprio's embracing of the character, and all of his fellow cast members – including even Alec Baldwin – pop up to praise his acting skills. They then dissect all of the main characters in turn, talking about the intricacies of the different relationships in Hughes' life. We get a brief glimpse of Gwen Stefani in interview, along with a nice anecdote of how Scorsese came across her. Although ludicrously self-praising, it is a nice featurette and well worth your time.
The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History is a fourteen minute featurette focussing on the reality behind Hughes' contributions towards the aviation industry. We get real pilots commenting on how much is owed to Hughes' pioneering endeavours, along with a brief history of the development of his interest in, and love of, aviation. DiCaprio gives you a little background into Hughes' life - and there is a considerable amount of information that fills in the gaps in the movie. It is a nice documentary because you gain enough facts to be able to compare it to the story told in the movie, seeing that they stuck quite closely to the truth. There is also a little bit of old newsreel footage and interview footage with the real Howard Hughes, which is a tremendous gem to come across.
The Affliction of Howard Hughes – An Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a fourteen minute featurette that takes a much more detailed look at Hughes OCD problems, something only briefly touched upon in the previous material. DiCaprio pops up again to talk about the great man and his damaging disorder. Medical experts contribute some interesting background information into OCD and DiCaprio explains how he spent some time with a real obsessive-compulsive to learn about it – and there is even some poignant interview footage with several sufferers. Apparently one in fifty people have this disorder, to varying degrees. This is a fascinating documentary that is possibly the most interesting and important feature on this extras disc.
Constructing the Aviator: The Work of Dante Ferretti is a short, five minute featurette that looks at the production designer, Dante Ferretti, and his work on the film. It features some nice behind the scenes footage, production stills and concept art, and plenty of interview footage with the crew. Ferretti talks about how he has worked with Scorsese on six of his movies and what he had to do to bring The Aviator to life. The fact that they built a full-size 'Spruce Goose' is amazing, and some of the in-depth exploration of the sets highlights the sheer level of detail that the movie maintains.
Costuming The Aviator: The Work of Sandy Powell is another brief featurette, running at a mere three minute, and quickly looking at the costumes designed, featuring interviews with the Costume Designer Sandy Powell, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale and yet more DiCaprio, along with concept art for the designs, all illustrated by the relevant footage from the movie.
The Age of Glamour: The Hair and Makeup of The Aviator takes an eight minute look at the hairstyle and makeup on he movie, but comes across as an extended TV ad for Max Factor. They justify this by tracing the history of Max Factor, who used many of the real stars in this movie to advertise the makeup.
Scoring The Aviator: The Work of Howard Shore is a seven minute featurette showcasing the score and featuring interviews with the composer, along with behind the scenes footage of the orchestra in action. Shore talks about how he researched the style of the scores from movies of the relevant era and how he used this basic concept as the foundation for his score to The Aviator. We hear how he got together with Scorsese to discuss the score whilst watching the movie, and his contributions to key aspects of the film's storytelling. It is a tremendous score that is easily worth making a featurette about.
The Wainwright Family – Loudon, Rufus and Martha is a five minute look at the Wainwrights, who did one of the band performances in the movie. I don't know whether they are quite worthy of a featurette unto their own, but it is quite interesting to hear about the different eras that each generation of singer came from and how they brought it all together to create the right effect.
OCD Panel Discussionis with Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese and Howard Hughes' widow, Terry Moore. This runs at fifteen minutes in length and was recorded live last Christmas. Because it is live, the sound is occasionally distorted and poor, but it is still interesting to hear the discussion of the subject, which features several interesting revelations about Hughes' life and his illness. More importantly it posits the real method acting ideology, talking about how the brain of an actor can actually start behaving like the brain of the obsessive-compulsive he is portraying if they try hard enough. DiCaprio regales – often amusingly – some anecdotes about his strange behaviour on set and how, if he let it, it could easily take over him. Scorsese talks about the specific shots he did to capture the disorder and his widow contributes a little towards the end about her experiences of his problems. This is a very revealing discussion that is well worth your time.
Beautifully directed – with grand plane scenes handled as adeptly as intimate character portrayals – and with some magnificent performances from a fabulous cast, I simply cannot recommend The Aviator enough. Yet another magnificent Scorsese movie, the first of a trilogy of Scorsese-DiCaprio director/lead actor collaborations, it features an astounding performance from the young DiCaprio – the first of many – and one which makes him stand out even amidst an amazing supporting cast. It is a respectful testament to the real Howard Hughes, handled adroitly, shot breathtakingly and superbly realised.
On Region B-locked UK Blu-ray the technical specifications reflect the splendour of the material – with reference picture quality and a benchmark audio track – and there is little more you would need to know about the production that is not covered in the comprehensive extra features. Both this movie and this release come strongly recommended (it would make a great companion piece to Daniel Day-Lewis’s There Will Be Blood, or sat amidst the other lead performances DiCaprio did with Scorsese).
A must-have for fans, who may have already purchased the almost-identical US release, but may, if Region B-capable, still be tempted to pick this up because of this considerably improved UK release (I believe the delay was because the US distribution rights were through Warner, where the UK rights were tied up with Miramax, who have only just got around to releasing some of their back-catalogue through the help of Studio Canal). And if you haven’t seen this movie, then it comes as a recommended blind-buy.
This is a tremendous film.
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